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The Monday Garden
Shades of Maple: Death by Norway

Issue No. 88 - November 23, 2003
by Sue Sweeney

The Norway maples hold their leaves longer in the fall than our native maples, providing late-season yellow accents for bare tree branches and winter evergreens.

Here's a leaf just fallen to the ground in a back alley near my home.

A Norway maple has three effective ways of destroying your lawn: dense summer shade, a smothering blanket of fall leaves, and a choking network of surface roots. There are mosses that will survive this onslaught, so treasure them. Since the way we nurture our lawns trends to be worse for the environment than Norways are for our lawns. Norways wouldn't be so bad except for their winged seeds that float off into our woodlands and wreck havoc there.

In Norway, Norway maples aren't so bad because it's too cold for them in most of the country but they have become one of the most widespread trees in Europe.

A couple of weeks ago, a reader, Margarthe, wondered why landscaping professionals continue to recommend environmentally-unsafe plants like Norway maples. Plant nurseries and landscapers are no different than other retailers: they are trying to make a living; not save the planet. They recommend what they think the customer will buy from what's in stock. What's in stock reflects market trends projected several years ago by the wholesale nurseries that actually grow the plants. The local retailers have little input.

Most wholesalers can only mass-produce plants that propagate easily and grow relatively fast. Also, they know that most homeowners aren't expert horticulturists and are more comfortable in choosing already familiar plants. Just think of the overuse of Impatiens. Since baby trees are relatively expensive long-term investments, people are even more likely to want to stick to the "tried and true".

So, popularity begets popularity, regardless of actual wisdom. This tends most pronounced with trees because the problems often don't show up for 20 to 50 years. Sort of like smoking.

Norways were introduced to North America in the late 1700's. George Washington is said to have bought two from a Philadelphia importer. They became widespread around World War II when many were planted to replace elms stricken by the Dutch Elm disease. It seemed like a good idea at the time because Norways are one of the faster growing hardwoods that do well as street trees (handle pollution, live a long time, have strong branches). Today, the average home owner sees the trees gracing the neighbor's yard and thinks: "nice tree, but why don't they take better care of their lawn? They should put lime on the moss and re-seed under the tree." The same person goes hiking in the woods, and wonders about the lack of wildflowers. The Norway maple's culpability only becomes clear once it's been pointed out.


Norway leaves carpet a Stamford vest pocket park in late October.

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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