Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with an amazing tree that has proven to be one of the cornerstones of our homesteading way of life. The Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) towers over the edges of the pastures, casting a deep shade in the summer months that is welcomed by the humans and animals alike. In the spring and fall, when our corner of the world is frequented with the occasional drizzle, it’s massive leaves do a fine job of keeping us dry(ish). The dense canopy also provides protection to our poultry from the ever circling eagles and hawks.
But I didn’t come here today to talk to you about the merits of the giant Big Leaf Maples at our farm; I came to talk to you about the merits of the the tiny Big Leaf Maples at our farm. You see, we also have an orchard, and great big towering trees that soak up all the sun aren’t such a good thing for little apple trees on dwarf rootstocks. So out came the chainsaw, and away I went, opening up the sky for our mossy little fruit trees. And as they came down, the goats came running to devour those delicious treetops that they had lusted after for so long.
I started doing some research, and it turns out that Big Leaf Maple foliage is high in calcium, and it is well known that our soils in this wet maritime climate are inevitably leached of this all important mineral. So I started surmising that the deep root systems were mining calcium (along with other easily leached minerals like phosphorous) and our goats were keying into this suddenly abundant resource. Within a few days of felling, the goats had stripped the stems bare and we were left with nothing more than a huge brush pile. To some, it may have looked like a huge brush pile, but to us, it looked like a warm cozy fire come winter time, and a hot apple pie fresh from the oven.
The fire is obvious. We cut the main trunks into firewood and are watching them cure in the woodshed as we speak-our alternative to propane next winter. The apple pie takes a bit more imagination, so bear with me. Fruit trees enjoy a fungi dominated soil, and fungi thrive on cellulose. And all those ten thousand tiny branches that we just limbed off our firewood is made out of…you guessed it: cellulose. And after that cellulose breaks down, the apple tree will absorb the nutrients, and a year or two from now will turn those maple branches into sweet fruit.
So the small branches with a high surface area to volume ratio go to the apple trees for mulch, the main trunks go to the wood stove, and the leaves go to goats (whose milk goes in our bellies). And here’s the best part. Big Leaf Maple trees re-sprout from cut stumps and grow like weeds, that is if you can think of any weeds that grow ten feet in a year. Now we have the root systems of 40 foot trees putting all their effort into sending up suckers, and so our maple coppice begins. We will rotate different stands so that we can harvest these myriad resources yearly and always have different age classes ready to cut.
Fellow tree huggers out there, don’t be dismayed. We didn’t cut down any of the really big maples. They are phenomenal bird habitat, a great nectar source for bees (soon to be the honey in our larder), and some day we may even tap them for maple syrup. And as I mentioned above, the virtues of the deep canopy, at least in a few choice locations, are indispensable on the homestead. And the virtues of a really big tree, aesthetically, is invaluable on planet earth. Even if you don’t live in the land of the Big Leaf Maple, there are probably comparable species in your neck of the woods that, with an understanding of ecology, may present a similar wealth of natural resources to your homestead.