Bigleaf maple can grow up to 35 m tall, but more commonly grows 15 m to 20 m tall. The flowers are produced in spring in pendulous racemes 10–15 cm long, greenish-yellow with inconspicuous petals. The fruit is a paired samara (winged nutlet), each seed 1-1.5 cm diameter with a 4–5 cm wing.
Bigleaf maple can form pure stands on moist soils in proximity to streams, but is generally found in mixed stands in riparian hardwood forests or in relatively open canopies of conifers, mixed evergreens, or oaks (Quercus spp.). It is dominant or codominant in cool and moist temperate mixed woods.
Bigleaf maple is the only commercially important maple of the Pacific Coast region, although in some areas, it is not considered valuable and may be left unharvested or intentionally knocked over during harvest of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and redwood (Sequoia spp.) stands. The wood, which is light, reddish-brown, fine-grained, moderately heavy, and moderately hard and strong, is primarily used in veneer production for furniture, but also for musical instruments, interior paneling, and other hardwood products. Lakwungen First Nations people of Vancouver Island call it the Paddle Tree and used it to make paddles and spindle wheels.
Like other maples, bigleaf has a sugary sap from which maple syrup can be made. The sugar concentration is about the same as in Acer saccharum (sugar maple), with a similar ratio of sap to syrup (it takes 35–40 liters sap to make 1 liter syrup), but the flavor is somewhat different and there is limited commercial interest in it. (See Wikipedia article in full entry for information about ethnobotanic and medicinal uses.)
The seeds provide food for squirrels, evening grosbeaks, chipmunks, mice, and a variety of birds. Elk, black-tailed and mule deer, and horses browse the young twigs, leaves, and saplings. In some forest stands, up to 60% of the seedlings over 10 inches (25 cm) tall have been browsed by deer, most several times.
Acer species are sometimes classified in their own family, Aceraceae, but have been grouped in Sapindaceae (along with Hippocastanaceae) in the most recent version of the Angiosperm Phyologeny Group system (Stevens 2001). “Macrophyllum” refers to the fact that the leaves are large—the largest of any maple species.
- Stevens, P.F. 2001 onwards. Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 9, June 2008 [and more or less continuously updated since]. http://www.mobot.org/MOBOT/research/APweb/.
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