Friday, November 29, 2013

The maple of Black Friday






Species name: Acer nigrum

Common name: black maple

Location: Western University campus

What better way to celebrate the phenomenon that is Black Friday with a...black maple! You bet I've been holding off on this blog for weeks! For those of you not from the United States or Canada and who are unfamiliar with this "Black Friday thing," here's a brief run-down. Traditionally in Canada the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day. Truly, I have no idea what the history of Boxing Day is, but now it has morphed into the National Day of Shopping. Crazy people (like me) get up at 6 am in order to make it to the mall as soon as it opens, and every store has some kind of crazy sale. Boxing Day is one of my favourite days of the year since I love shopping, but I absolutely refuse to pay full-price for an item. Not to be outdone, the United States has Black Friday. Since Christmas isn't actually that big of a deal in the US (trust me, I'm surprised, too), Thanksgiving is their biggest national holiday (aside from possibly Independence Day in some areas), and it weirdly occurs on a Thursday. In order to "bridge the gap" between Thanksgiving and the weekend, the phenomenon known as Black Friday has evolved. That is the day that Americans get up ridiculously early and go shopping. And let me tell you: Black Friday deals in some stores are ridiculous. While I've never been to the States on a Black Friday (and never intend to go; the day is notorious for people getting trampled to death in order to get to the good deals first), I've heard some great stories of people scoring big-screen TVs for $32, or a brand new iPhone 5C for $49 with no contract. That's crazy! I have no idea whether Boxing Day or Black Friday came first, but I like to think Boxing Day did. Because I'm Canadian, and all good things are Canadian before Americans steal our ideas. Like basketball. And hockey.

Back to plants! The black maple is actually a "species" under furious debate amongst botanists, and the crowd is currently split about its species status. There are some botanists (that I like to think are in the majority, but I'm honestly not sure) that say the black maple is a good species and deserves its own Latin name. There's another group, however, that is absolutely convinced that it's merely a subspecies of the sugar maple, and should actually be called Acer saccharum subsp. nigrum. Unfortunately, should this prove to be the case, the black maple would lose all designation as a species and no longer be protected by any kind of Species At Risk legislation across all of North America, where it has its native range. To me, this would be tragic since I happen to really like black maples. But I do see where "the other side" is coming from: black maples and sugar maples readily hybridize with each other, their wood can be used for the exact same purposes in the lumber trade because they have the same grain qualities and the same chemical makeup (the same amount of lignin and cellulose, with the same type of ring structure), they can both be used to produce maple syrup (although, black maples much less so than sugar maples), and they have very similar maple key characteristics. The most notable difference is the shape of the leaves; the black maple leaf is much more rounded at the bottom than the sugar maple (which is nearly flat), the black maple leaf has only three main lobes with no minor lobes (the sugar maple leaf has three main lobes and two much smaller lobes at the base near the petiole), and the leaves of the black maple "droop" like they're always slightly dehydrated (while sugar maple leaves are flat and not droopy at all). In fact, the slightly floppy quality to the leaves is the reason why most black maples are accidentally massacred on residential properties. Because they always look like they're drought-stressed and need water, people who don't know that's what black maples look like normally drown them to death. The poor trees! And I will admit, until a few months ago I would have been in the "drowning the tree" boat. I always thought this poor tree needed some water (and since it is in the middle of an island in a huge parking lot, not getting much water is a very real possibility) and so likely would have drowned it, too, had I not been told differently. Now we all know. :)

So what are black maples good for, aside from maple syrup? Well, a lot if you ask the Ojibwa people. Not only did they boil the sap of the black maple to concentrate the sugars to use as a sweetener in cooking, but they also boiled the bark and drank the resulting liquid to treat diarrhea and to act as a diuretic. Neither of these uses have been evaluated in clinical trials. The branches of this tree can also be very straight, and so made good wood for arrows and were the preferred source for "arrow wood". The wood of the black maple is also easily carved, especially when young, and so was sometimes carved into elaborate shapes for ornamental pieces and for kitchen items like spoons and bowls.

If you went out to brave the crowds today, hopefully you managed to pick up something you liked and got a great deal!