Give Thanks for a Beloved Sugar Maple

The old maple is dying.

It faded slowly at first, but last summer it started to go fast, its lichen-covered limbs snapping and falling to the ground, gray bark covered in dark green moss. It has far fewer leaves. A crack runs in the middle. Other plants grow in the tree’s crevices: purple mulberry canes, prickly grasses, and red-tinged euonymus. For the first time, I see three spike holes, so lined up that they look like Orion’s belt.

I don’t know why the tree is dying, so I’m doing some research. The maple trees are prone to many diseases, such as anthracnose, verticillium wilt, and powdery mildew, but I’m still confused, so I call Brian Crooks, a forester from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The giveaway, he says, are the little honey-colored mushrooms at the base of the tree, which indicate the maple tree has a fungus: Armillaria root rot.

The Armillaria fungus affects many hardwoods and conifers, especially maples, oaks and elms. Stringy black rhizomorphs grow through the soil into the roots and trunk of the tree and attack the wood. If I peel off the bark, I could see shiny white mycelial fans. But none of this is visible yet. I learn that the Armillaria mushroom is largest known organism in the world, larger than the 200 ton blue whale. A patch of Armillaria was discovered in Oregon in 1998 covering 2384 acres.

I don’t know how big ours is, but I’m afraid it’s encroaching on a nearby tree, a large red oak which is my husband’s favorite.

I wonder if the maple isn’t liking our new weather in western Pennsylvania: extreme heat, drought, then microbursts of rain and wind and flash flooding. When our floods come now, the water is rolling down the hill so fast that the maple stands in the middle of a pond, a stream running through it. I know from maple growing with my friend and his 89 year old uncle that changing weather conditions make maple growing more difficult. For the sap to flow in February or March, the days must be warm and the nights cold. The timing is less predictable now. But I’m not a scientist, so I ask Crooks.

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