Friday, October 14, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Sugar Maple Trees

This post is part of a recurring segment here on Science Decoded where I blog for the first graders at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School about the various units in their science program.

Sugar Maple leaves. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Hello First Graders!

I hear you are studying trees in your science class, and I wanted to share with you some of the special aspects of a certain type of tree: The Sugar Maple.

The Sugar Maple (scientific name: Acer saccharum) is a deciduous tree. Deciduous means that its leaves change color and fall off during the Fall. A Sugar Maple tree can grow as tall as 82-115 feet, but it takes a long time to get that big. After ten years (thats older than all of you!) a Sugar Maple tree will usually only be about 16 feet tall. The leaves on a Sugar Maple tree are usually around 7-8 inches long, and have five lobes. Take a look at the picture of the leaves, do they look familiar? Do any of you have Sugar Maple trees in your backyard? What about at the school?

Sugar Maple Range. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Sugar Maple is a tree that can be found in hardwood forests throughout northeastern North America, which includes Canada and the United States. Take a look at this map, the green part is where Sugar Maple trees grow. Do you see New Jersey? How about Wisconsin? Sugar Maple trees grow in New Jersey where you are, and Wisconsin where I am.

Sugar Maples are very important because they are able to grow really well in shady areas and also provide habitat (places to live) for animals in the forest. This species of tree isn't rare or endangered, but it is a special part of these forest ecosystems. An ecosystem is a biological (natural) area made of all the living and non-living parts of the environment, this means all the plants (like Sugar Maples!) animals, water, sunlight, and even soil. All of these things need to be healthy to make the environment strong. In addition to being important for the forest ecosystem, Sugar Maples also have a special ability. These trees can also be useful for people to make products like Maple Syrup.
Sap collection. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sugar Maple trees have a sugary sap inside them that people can harvest in the Spring by making a hole in the trunk and collecting the sap that runs out. When the sap is heated, some of the water evaporates, leaving behind syrup. Here is an example of what collecting the sap looks like, it is being drained into those buckets attached to the trees.

Now I have a surprise for you! We have a special Farmer's Market here in Wisconsin, that is one of the biggest Farmer's Markets in the country. Have any of you ever gone to the Farmer's Market where you live? It is a place where local farmer's bring their fruits, vegetables, and other products to sell. Here in Wisconsin you can buy some of the products people make from Sugar Maple trees at the Farmer's Market.

I filled up a little package for you with information about the Wisconsin Farmer's Market, some Sugar Maple products, and even a little surprise from the University of Wisconsin's mascot Bucky Badger. I hope you like it!
Let me know if you have any questions about Sugar Maple trees!


  1. Thank you!! Do the lobes on leaves have a job? How do the trees make sap? Why do trees only change color in the fall? How long do sugar maple trees live? You helped us to really begin thinking about our first grade tree.
    Your the best. Love 1P.

  2. Hi First Graders! I'm so glad you had fun learning about the Sugar Maple tree. Here are the answers to your questions:

    1. Do the lobes on leaves have a job? - This is a great question. Unfortunately there isn't a specific explanation for why the Sugar Maple tree has lobes on its leaves, but I can tell you that leaves in general serve the important role of absorbing energy from the sun, so the shape of a leaf is determined by what that species of tree needs. The less sunlight it gets, the bigger its leaves need to be.

    2. How do the trees make sap? - When Sugar Maple trees perform photosynthesis (the process by which they turn sunlight into energy) a substance called carbohydrates forms in the trunk and roots of the tree. These carbohydrates are converted to starch which is stored in the cells of the tree. This starch becomes sucrose (sugar) when the temperatures start to get warmer in the spring, and start to flow through the tree.

    3. Why do trees only change color in the Fall? - Trees change color in the Fall as a part of their life cycle, this is effected by the amount of sunlight, water and nutrients available for a tree to grow. In Summer there are a lot of these things, but as the weather gets colder, these things are less abundant.

    4. How long do Sugar Maple trees live? - In general, Sugar Maple trees live a long time. It is rare, but some Sugar Maple trees live to be as old as 300-400 years!