The Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) is a large deciduous tree that grows in the south-western region of the province of British Columbia, Canada. It’s range extends from southern Alaska to southern California. Here on Vancouver Island, the Bigleaf Maple is the largest and most common maple tree.
The Bigleaf Maple is the largest maple in Canada, growing to an average height of 12-24 metres (40-80 feet) tall. But they can grow up to 40-50 metres (131-164 feet) tall.
The trunk diverges into numerous long, thick vertical limbs. With a broad canopy that can extend 15 metres (50 feet), the long trunk is branch free for usually half the height of the tree.
Bigleaf Maple Leaves
The leaves of a Bigleaf Maple are the largest in Canada. Typically the leaves are 15-30cm wide and five-lobed. The leaf has five lobes, blunt irregular teeth on the edges, are dark and shiny green on the top and a lighter green on the underside. This green turns to yellow and gold once autumn comes and then the leaves fall off in near the end of October and into the beginning of November.
This is a time of year where the Bigleaf Maple stands out in the coniferous forests of Vancouver Island, and when a hike through the forest provides a glimpse as to what the forests of eastern Canada look like in the fall.
The stalk of the leaf has a milky liquid that oozes when broken. Leaves always grow as pairs as do the twigs of the leaf.
In spring, the Bigleaf Maple produces flowers which are long and greenish-yellow in colour. These flowers are 10-15cm long. The flowers hang in clusters at the very end of the small twigs.
Bigleaf Maple Fruit
The fruit of the Bigleaf Maple is well known to children and adults alike. The paired wing samara has two seeds embedded inside. The samara is a flattened wing of paper thin fibre. The shape of the fruit allows it to ride the wind and go further afield from it’s parent tree. The seeds are a bit hairy.
Small forest creatures such as squirrels, birds and mice eat the seeds of the tree. The twigs are eaten by deer and elk.
Bigleaf Maple Habitat
Pure Bigleaf Maple tree stands are located in coarse, gravelly, moist soil in close proximity to streams, rivers and lakes. These trees can also generally be found within hardwood forests or open coniferous and mixed evergreen forests. On Vancouver Island, the Bigleaf Maple is a dominant species in the mixed species forests.
The bark has a greyish-brown to reddish-brown colour. With interlacing grooves, the bark can be home to many other forest plants that sometimes forms a blanket of greens and yellows. The calcium rich bark hosts these mosses, liverworts and lichens. This is a symbiotic relationship, as both the Bigleaf Maple and the other plants share nutrients.
The bark has a distinctive pattern of grooves that are interlaced and 4-sided raised ridges.
Bigleaf Maple Uses
The Bigleaf Maple has been part of our culture for since time immemorial. The lumber has been used by our people to create dishes, pipes and paddles. The inner bark was used to make baskets and ropes.
Bigleaf Maple Syrup
The Big Leaf Maple tree produces sap with a sugar concentration that is perfectly suitable for maple syrup production. Bigleaf Maple tree leaves create sugars through photosynthesis. The sugar is then sent to the roots and sapwood of the tree for storage. This sugar is now available for the tree to grow all of its parts. Buds, leaves, branches and sapwood. The tree can also use this stored sugar to repair any wounds. This sugar moves around the tree through the sapwood which is located near the bark.
The difference between the trees species gives the maple syrup a flavour that is indescribably unique yet identifiably maple. The total sugar content is the same. but the end product contains a much greater mineral content than Eastern maple syrup. Big Leaf Maple syrup has twice as much calcium and magnesium in the finished product than sugar maples.
How is Bigleaf Maple Syrup Made?
The maple syrup that comes from a Bigleaf Maple tree goes through a long process from photosynthesis to ending up in an artisan bottle of Kleekhoot Gold Bigleaf Maple Syrup.
On Vancouver Island in Hupacasath Traditional Territory, the best tapping time is when the air temperatures return above the freezing point after a winter cold snap. In the Alberni Valley, this usually happens anytime between December and March, with the bulk of production occurring in January and February.
When we decide which trees to tap for sap collection we are looking for a tree that is over 30 centimetres in diameter. This helps reduce the risk of of damage and ensure good flows of sap. These trees are not the largest or oldest in the forest. Younger trees provide much more sap. And areas that are rich in groundwater are additionally beneficial for sap production.
Once we have collected the sap from the Big Leaf Maple it takes roughly three gallons of Bigleaf Maple sap to make one 200mL bottle of syrup. We do not use any added sugars in our process – we only deliver the pure unadulterated sweetness that our trees provide. We condense the sap to the same 66% sugar content that other maple syrup producers use.