The Magic of Maples – Why the Maples in Pacific Spirit Park are so special

Vancouver is the land of the giant evergreen tree. Our Douglas-firs, Hemlocks, and Cedars. They dominate our forest, towering over and casting such a deep shade that few plants can grow below. There is really only one deciduous tree species that can compete. This our national tree, a Canadian icon, our stunning Maple Tree.

Bigleaf Maple Leaves

There is an important distinction to make between coniferous, needle-leaf trees (Gymnosperms, which means ‘naked seeds’, think trees with cones!) and broadleaf trees (Angiosperms, ‘covered seeds’, think apples, cherries, or nuts). We often think of both of these groups under the same classification of “trees”. When really, Gymnosperms vs Angiosperms is like Insects vs Mammals. While they both have wood and leaves, the structure of the wood and leaves is actually radically different between the two groups. It can be misleading to talk of both as trees because they are so fundamentally different.

Gymnosperms are almost twice the age of Angiosperms in evolutionary time. Gymnosperms are ancient dinosaur trees while Angiosperms really only came into their own with the rise of the mammals and extinction of dinosaurs. Douglas-firs are ancient elders and Maples are punk kids encroaching on their territory. Gymnosperms were used to a world of less CO2 and water, so learned to grow as efficient as possible. With a wood structure that uses as little water as possible, and needle-leaves that are durable and last for multiple years. Angiosperms are short-lived, flamboyant showboats in comparison. They often lose and regrow their leaves every fall, requiring a large amount of water and CO2 for this incredible production. They also spent a lot of energy on beautiful flowers and tasty carbohydrates (fruit!) to attract animals and insects for pollen and seed spreading.

When you walk in the woods though, the easiest difference to see between the two is how angiosperms are sun-chasers, putting branches out in every direction, grabbing as much sun energy as possible. Gymnosperms trunks grow straight and true with small branches, their more efficient wood structure meaning they need less sun.

Angiosperm vs gymnosperm shapes

Often on my tree walks I focus on the identifying the three main gymnosperm trees of Pacific Spirit Park (Douglas-fir, Cedar, Hemlock). People learn to identify these trees by their bark and it quickly becomes easy to tell which is which. So then I try and make it a bit harder and point to a new tree and watch as they struggle to guess what it is. It’s bark looks a bit like Douglas-fir, no wait more like a Hemlock. Hmmm. They get stuck, doubting themselves.

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