Bigtooth maple: Vermonters may boast, but for landscape color as dazzling as a sunset just look to the West – the bigtooth maple of Arizona is imposing in all seasons but its autumn coloration is spectacular – includes sources – Brief Article

Thomas A. Johnson

“Incandescent scarlets, glowing orange-yellows and deep wine-reds” — that’s how author Ronald M. Lanner describes the fall colors of bigtooth maple (Acer saccharum grandidentatum). As far as I’m concerned, he’s right on the mark.

Bigtooth maple is a handsome tree throughout spring and summer, but in fall it’s gorgeous. The color variation is genetically determined and depends on the presence of two classes of pigments: anthocyanins, which yield reds and purples, and xanthophylls, carotene derivatives that yield oranges and yellows. Above our home in the western foothills of Utah’s Wasatch range, these native maples are mixed in with Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii), clinging to the exposed rock faces or standing sentinel in a patch of native grass. In early September the maples begin to change colors. Against the backdrop of still-green oaks, gray rocks and brown grasses. the color variation from one tree to the next is quite striking. We call them “Trix bushes” because of their amazing similarity to the popular breakfast cereal.

They’re not really bushes, but neither would one consider them trees according to the standard of the Eastern hardwood forests. These natives of the intermountain states grow to heights ranging from 20 to 25 feet with trunks 9 inches in diameter. I suspect the height variation depends on soil and conditions and available moisture. So what if a Vermonter would scoff at our maples — things are different west of the Mississippi.

But a Down Easter shouldn’t hoot too loudly. The bigtooth is related to the sugar maple found in the northeastern United States. Early settlers in Utah boiled down the sap of the bigtooth, as well as the box elder and the cottonwood, for the sugar. The flavor of its syrup is similar to the Eastern variety, being delicately fruity and slightly more acid, with a light honey color. However, as a sugar producer the tree lost favor in Utah when first the railroad arrived and then the sugar beet industry began to flourish.

Acer saccharum grandidentatum is commonly known by two names: canyon maple and bigtooth maple. The 19th century naturalist Thomas Nuttall called it mountain sugar maple, having noted its resemblance to the Eastern sugar maple during his travels through the Rocky Mountain region. The size of the leaves, while generally smaller than those of the sugar maple but with three to five similar big-toothed lobes, is the basis for the botanical name grandidentatum, which translates to “big tooth.”

In the wild the bigtooth is generally found in elevations ranging from 4,500 to 7,500 feet in canyon bottoms and draws and on moist mountainsides. Showing up in Zones 4 through 7, the tree grows throughout the Rocky Mountains of southeastern Idaho, across Utah and southwest Wyoming into Colorado and south to western Texas. Bigtooth can also be found in the arid regions of central and southern New Mexico and in most of the high mountain areas of Arizona, except in the northeast and southwest.

With its wide and varied range, the bigtooth is fairly flexible in its moisture requirements and can be found in some of the most awful soil one can imagine — alkaline, short on organic matter and long on rock and sand. On a dry, exposed south or west face, the trees will grow very slowly, while in a ravine bottom or next to a year-round creek they will flourish.

Given its background, the bigtooth needn’t be pampered in the home garden. Well-drained soil is its only demand. The three specimens in my gardens seem to like a little more water than nature provides and will accept a little fertilizer in the spring.

Another plus is that they are relatively pest-free. To date my trees have been bothered only occasionally by aphids, which were quickly dispatched. One year I applied a dormant oil in early spring, just as the buds were breaking, and had nary an aphid an season.

The bigtooth also produces flowers, however unspectacular, in the spring. The 1/4-inch yellow blossoms are grouped together on catkins. In time, these flowers produce winged seeds that, oddly enough, resemble tiny Stealth bombers.

I’m sold on the bigtooth maple because of its color, habit, drought tolerance and hardiness. Its relatively small stature can enhance rather than dominate your garden design. A single specimen works well as a focal point. If there is more room, a small grove of these trees is worth considering in your landscape plans.

COPYRIGHT 1997 KC Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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