Life of a Tree: The Edgartown red maple

The red maple is an unassuming, all-around, all-purpose, excellent native tree that reflects the character of Martha’s Vineyard residents.

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The tree drapes its branches and lower leaves right into the lapping fresh waters of the pond below. —Sam Moore

This is the fourth in a series of articles that will describe unique and old trees across Martha’s Vineyard — one tree for each town (March 9, “The Quansoo oak,” June 9, “The West Chop pitch pine,” July 14, “The cedar of Cedar Tree Neck”). Each article relates the natural history of the tree to historical events that the tree has witnessed.

Like other successful Islanders, the Edgartown red maple is very good at more than one thing. Some Islanders catch conch and also saw lumber. Some build docks and also write poetry. As for the red maple, it grows in the sun and also grows in the shade. It grows in wet soils and grows in dry. It grows in soils acid or alkaline. The red maple is an unassuming, all-around, all-purpose, excellent native tree.
A grand tree of distinctive stature, the Edgartown red maple arches over Sheriff’s Pond at the Sheriff’s Meadow Sanctuary in Edgartown, just off Plantingfield Way. The tree drapes its branches and lower leaves right into the lapping fresh waters of the pond below.

The maple stands on the very edge of the pond. Its roots grip the mossy earth. One root morphs into a branch and extends laterally over the pond for some distance. The trunk measures nearly three feet in diameter at a point some three feet off the ground. Above that, the tree splits into three massive stems, each one reaching upward and branching out in all directions. The tree has grown to be a lovely shade tree. It is the kind of tree that invites the passerby to linger upon a nearby bench and reflect, or to sit right upon the moss, lean back against the trunk, and nod off.

This tree is a red maple, Acer rubrum. Although several kinds of maple trees can be found on Martha’s Vineyard, among them the exotic Norway maple and exotic sycamore maple, the red maple is the only one that is really a native tree. The sugar maple, the silver maple, and the boxelder are native to New England, but they are not ordinarily found on Martha’s Vineyard.

Until fall, the leaves of the red maple are not red, they are green, a bright, deep green. In fall, however, the leaves turn red, or orange, or yellow. Sometimes, a single red maple leaf may turn all three of these colors at once. Along with sumac, beetlebung, poison ivy, and huckleberry, the red maple provides the best fall foliage on the Island. The red maple may be so named because, in the spring, it is among the first of the trees to break bud, and its red buds in the swamps and along the streams provide the first hint of the spring and of the summer to come. In the field guide entitled “A Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide to Southern New England,” author Neil Jorgensen attributes the red colors of the fall leaves to the acidity of the soil.

The sugar maple is the preferred tree for making maple syrup, but the red maple may be tapped, too. The sap of the red maple is sweet, but not as sweet as the sap of sugar maple. It therefore takes more red maple sap than sugar maple sap to yield the same amount of syrup. The red maple sugaring season also ends earlier, because the red maple breaks bud much earlier.

Many people ask how to distinguish the red maple from the other maples. The red maple leaf has three distinct lobes, whereas many other maples have five lobes. Furthermore, the red maple leaf has rough, serrated edges, whereas the leaves of the other maples commonly found on the Island have smooth edges. “Red, rough” is a useful mnemonic device.

One also might take note of the bark and branches of this tree. The bark on young stems is smooth, almost as smooth as that of the elephantine bark of the American beech. On older trees, the bark becomes rougher, and splits into plates. Branching patterns make the maple easy to spot in the winter. Of the common trees of the northeast, only maple, ash, dogwood, and horse chestnut (“M.A.D. Horse” is the mnemonic device) have opposite branching patterns — all of the other trees have alternate branching. Opposite branching on maples means that maple branches, maple twigs, and maple leaves all fork off from the main stem at points opposite to one another.

An increment core of one of the three massive stems of the Edgartown red maple revealed this stem to be about 70 years old. The stem itself was 22 inches in diameter. Red maples do not produce growth rings that are as distinct as those of other trees, making it difficult to determine the age of the tree. The tree was cored at a point about five feet off the ground, in one of the stems. Given that the tree would have taken a few years to grow a height of five feet, it appears possible that this red maple may have sprouted from the stump of an earlier tree. Given the age of about 70 years, perhaps this tree sprouted in 1939, after the great hurricane of 1938 felled its forebear.

The Edgartown red maple grows at Sheriff’s Meadow Sanctuary in Edgartown. The namesake of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, the sanctuary is the first property of the foundation. The land was purchased by Henry Beetle Hough and Elizabeth Bowie Hough from Grace Ward. When no other conservation group wanted to accept a gift of this land, the undaunted Houghs created a new organization, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, and gave the land to it.

The Edgartown red maple arches over a pond that once served as a reservoir for ice. In his book, “Soundings at Sea Level,” Mr. Hough described the ice operation.

“The icehouse, an immense, high-shouldered structure, its roofline sharp against the sky, was the most conspicuous landmark on this side of town for many years, though hardly rivaling the Methodist Church on the other side.

“At one end a lean-to had been built to shelter a horse and an ice wagon, and close by stood a shack for the gasoline engine that powered a hoist to lift ice cakes up a ladderlike ramp to the coldness and blackness inside. This particular lift was the invention of Louis H. Pease, who owned the pond, and he had it patented.

“On winter mornings we would look out as soon as it was daylight to see Mr. Pease, a frail old-time figure, walking faithfully to the pond to gauge how thickly it might have frozen. In many a winter the pond did not freeze deeply enough for ice to be stored for marketing. A really good harvest, though, might mean a supply adequate for several years … After Mr. Pease died, his daughter, Grace Ward, took over the business, one of the first women to manage such an old, established enterprise of the town.”

Eventually, Mrs. Ward retired and removed the icehouse. The Houghs bought the land from Mrs. Ward and gave it to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation. The story of this tree, however, began years before the land was conserved.

Timeline: Circa 1840

In the spring of 1840, a zephyr blew across Eel Pond, and detached a red-winged samara, containing two maple seeds, from the twig of a nearby red maple. The samara spun about, whirlybird-style, alighting upon the earth just on the edge of the pond. One of the seeds germinated, and a few weeks later, a little red maple sprout began growing on the bank of the pond. Later that year Capt. Valentine Pease of Edgartown set forth on a whaling voyage aboard the Acushnet. One of the sailors was Herman Melville.

The 1850s

Now a sapling, the red maple had shot up several feet. Its red buds offered hope for summer on spring nights, while pinkletinks called out. Nearby, Sheriff Isaiah Pease grazed his oxen in the meadow, giving the surrounding land its moniker of “Sheriff’s Meadow.” In the winter, the Pease family cut blocks of ice from the pond, packed them in sawdust, and stored them in the icehouse on the other side of the pond.

1938

The great hurricane of 1938 swept over Martha’s Vineyard. In Edgartown, the hurricane breached the Eel Pond barrier beach. It felled the ancestor of the Edgartown red maple. Edgartown residents cut up the felled tree for firewood, leaving behind the stump.

1939

The Edgartown red maple sprouted vigorously from the stump. By summer, the stump sports a crown of sprouts, each of them festooned with rough-edged leaves, each one opposite another. A mother snapping turtle crawls out of the pond, crawls past the stump, and lays her eggs in a dusty spot in the meadow. The Edgartown Lighthouse is replaced, as the original was damaged in the hurricane.

1946

One of the stems branched at about three feet off the ground, and there are now at least three main branches, each of them about five feet tall. From the edge of the pond, one could brush aside these slender sprouts, and spy the bell tower of the Old Whaling Church in the distance. Island veterans have returned home from their service in the war. A bunker that the Navy had used now stands in the dunes at South Beach, a relic of the war effort.

1958

A stout and sturdy tree, each of the three major stems of this red maple now measure four inches in diameter, thick enough that it would take both hands to grip one of the stems. Reaching for the sunlight, the tree has begun to angle over the pond. Neighbors Henry Beetle Hough and Elizabeth Bowie Hough have taken note of this land. The icehouse was gone, and Grace Ward had the place up for sale. Mr. Hough loved the land, and perhaps paused beside this tree on one of his daily walks with his collie. The Houghs bought the land, and gave it to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation on Dec. 30, 1958.

1972-1974

The red maple leaves are bright green in May. Nearby grow sassafras, black cherry, viburnum bushes, and pitch pines. Rep. Gerry Studds and Sen. Edward Kennedy introduce Nantucket Sound Islands Trust bills. Islanders debated and rejected the proposal; the Martha’s Vineyard Commission was created in 1974 as a different means of regulating development.

1975

The land surrounding the tree is open to the public and encircled by a loop trail. Couples sit beside the maple and dangle their feet in the pond; kids sneak off to the tree to hide for a bit. By now, each of the three stems has reached almost a foot in diameter. The Edgartown red maple is an established shade tree. Otters swim beneath it during the winter, smashing the ice with their skulls when needed. The snapping turtle still crawls by, every summer, on a journey to lay her leathery eggs in a dusty patch of the meadow. Islanders go to the movies to watch “Jaws,” which had been filmed on the Island the year before. The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust is founded, and goes on to preserve such Island landmarks at the Dr. Daniel Fisher House, the Old Whaling Church, and the Flying Horses.

1986

Each branch had grown another four inches in diameter in the past decade. As the tree had grown, so had the Island, and Islanders grew concerned that existing conservation groups could not keep pace with development. In response, Islanders successfully encouraged the Massachusetts legislature to pass enabling legislation creating the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission.

2016

Sheriff’s Meadow Sanctuary grew over the years with gifts from the Feareys, Gulicks, Angevins, Behrs, and Edie Blake. Steve Ewing built sturdy new boardwalks out of pitch pine sawn by Tom Turner. A path leads to the tree. The Edgartown red maple still graces the Sheriff’s Pond, offering shade and quiet on a hot summer day.

Adam Moore is executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, and a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry.