How to Grow a Sugar Maple Tree from Seed

Acer Saccharum

One of my projects this year was to grow enough trees to one day plant my own forest. However, with the current state of my bank account I may be planting these trees on someone else’s property in the dead of night. Is planting a tree in someone else’s yard illegal? Maybe I’ll post about that one later.

While I was driving through the Midwest and into the forests of the Northeast, I couldn’t help but notice that the leaves of the sugar maple (acer saccharum – not to be confused with the Florida maple aka the southern sugar maple) may be the one of nature’s greatest gifts. If you haven’t seen this tree’s leaves turn color in the fall, allow me to show you some examples.

Facts about the tree

Native Americans originally taught settlers how to tap this tree for maple syrup. While all maple trees can be tapped, the sugar maple has the highest concentration of sugar which makes it the best option. Each tree can produce anywhere from 5 to 60 gallons of sap every season which can be boiled down to create maple syrup (conversion rate at about 35 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of maple syrup).

Contrary to popular belief, the Canadian flag is not that of a sugar maple, rather a generic leaf from the maple family.

Rule of 5: The sugar maple leaf has 5 lobes and 5 veins starting from the stem and traveling all the way to the tips of the lobes. It will also change color in the Fall depending on the amount of sunlight it gets; less sun will turn it yellow and more sun will turn it red.

Mast Year

Every few years the sugar maple, along with other tree species, will have what is called a “mast year.” Essentially, this occurs when trees of the same species synchronize to produce thousands and thousands of seeds to safeguard against animals that normally feed off them. It floods the market so to speak and ensures that not every seed will be eaten thus allowing some to be naturally planted every few years to carry on the species. The seed looks like the top of a wine opener and should not be confused with the seeds of the Norwegian Maple. The Norwegian Maple is an invasive species brought over from Europe and due to their fast growth rates, they tend to overcrowd the native sugar maple.

Norwegian maple seeds
sugar maple seeds

This fall (September-October is around the time these “helicopters” will start to fall) was certainly a mast year and I was able to collect hundreds of seeds from multiple states (Collecting seeds from different locations increases genetic diversity which is always a good idea with a species of any sort). I then allowed the seeds a couple of weeks to dry indoors to begin the stratification process

What is Stratification?

Stratification is a process performed on many plant species found in colder climates. It’s a simulation of a winter which activates seeds that would otherwise not grow. Since these seeds fall so close to winter, evolution has allowed them to begin their growing season after the Spring thaw thus lengthening the initial growing season.

Steps to Germinate your Seeds

  1. Collect and dry your seeds for 1-2 weeks
  2. Take your seeds and place them in a plastic container filled with peat moss or damp dirt
  3. Label your container and store it in a temperature-controlled location from 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit. A refrigerator is the perfect place for this
  4. Sugar maples need to be stored anywhere from 45-60 days until they are ready to plant
  5. You may notice some of your seeds have germinated in the container which is perfectly fine. After the 45-60 days, transplant your seeds in a location that gets at least 4 hours of sunlight (but no more than 8) and in well-drained soil. Plant each seed roughly ½ inch to an inch into the soil
3 month old sugar maples

If you are planting these trees indoors to start, the materials list is very small:

  • Topsoil
  • Potting mix (mix together with topsoil to create suitable soil conditions)
  • Growing lamp (any type of light will do. I am currently using a shop light and it works great!)
  • Heating pad (this is optional but should only be used for seed germination)

There you have it; in no time you will have a forest of your very own! Comment on what kind of trees you would grow for your own personal forest.

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