Gardening Techniques 

Wicked Weed Tricks: Maple Keys

Happens every June here in Maine

My friend John lives in Scarborough, Maine which is up the road a bit from where I live in South Portland. My spouse and I were over at John’s house, enjoying a cookout, and I asked him if he thought there were more maple seeds on the ground than usual this year.

“Oh yeah,” John said, turning a marinated chicken breast over on the grill. “Twice as many.”

“I thought so,” I said. “I don’t remember the dang things being ankle-deep before.”

Wherever you live, I’m sure there’s a particular weed that drivers you nuts. I remember horrible snaky ivy tendrils that once attacked my garden in Columbus, Ohio. I used to call those plants “vermicious knids,” named for the space aliens in Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. The house I lived in did not have an elevator, glass or otherwise. What it did have an ancient, gray, deteriorated stockade fence which was absolutely overrun by insanely aggressive ivy which pushed through the weather-softened boards and crept — crept?? make that leaped — toward my house at a rate which seemed like a foot an hour.

Currently, these crazy maple seeds are my most intense challenge. While it’s annoying to have them clog the rain gutters and mix into the mulch on the back walkway, the major hassle for me is the way the whirligigs land in the windowboxes, plastic pails and planters (both large and small) where I grow my herbs and vegetables. They remind me of the cartoon image of parachuting undead creatures on a “Parazombies” tee shirt my daughter gave me. Doom from above.

If being mad about this did anything at all, I’d have vanquished all my weedy, seedy enemies by now. Rather than spend energy in frustration, I’m working on my best strategies to beat weeds at their own game. First, I’ve had to consider carefully the many strategies weeds use to try and take over my container garden.

The precise name for a maple key is a samara

The word “samara” is easy for me to remember because it’s one letter away from the term “samsara,” which is a concept from Buddhism. Samsara is about a continuous cycle, about birth and dying out and the cycle returning to the start again. And it’s about the residue leftover in the soul. And suffering. And dissatisfaction. So I see a parallel theme there.

What I see as a seed turned out to be a fruit, actually. One category in the world of fruits is a kind of “dry fruit” known as an “achene.” In the botanical world, a piece of fruit is an ovary, and the rind or peel is the ovarian wall. In an achene, this outer wall grows into a thin winglike bit of fiber and becomes the “wing” of the helicopter, so the fruit of the maple tree won’t fall just at the roots of the tree but will fly out further and create a maple forest. Elm trees have the seed/fruit in the middle of the winglike fibrous tissue. Ash trees are like maple trees; both have the fruit seed at one end so the achene spins as it falls, from being off-center.

Seeds or weeds? Same effect for my home garden

Weeds don’t think of themselves as weeds, I’m sure. I’m sure they consider themselves plants. Those little sticks with two pointy leaves on top are of course teeny-tiny tree saplings.

The problem of course is that their goal is monoculture. These cute little trees want to multiply, take over all acreage everywhere, and worst of all, the maple seedlings want to snuff out all the other plants which were there before the treelings arrived.

When maple helicopters are not raining down on our house, car, driveway, and garden, I appreciate the shade of the maple tree next to our driveway. This big leafy tree helps keep the house cool and provides a little privacy for us and for our next-door neighbors. I’m not as fond of the massive old large silver maple in the backyard. I’ve had my eye on it since we moved into the house. It is alarmingly large and its heavy branches may re-design our garage roof very suddenly some day. But it’s there and that’s that.

These two trees, plus those in neighboring yards, go crazy in June and absolutely blanket the ground and the flower beds with a solid mass of overlapping sticky brown maple seeds. This year the seeds fell and fell and fell, with breaks of a week or two in between. Even since the seed-fall seemed completely finished and I convinced myself there couldn’t possibly be any more I’ve noticed that any breezy day which rustles the branches of the big trees will bring down random scatterings of dried silver maple helicopters.

What to do, what to do?

It’s hard to protect the garden space from maple seeds. They fall heavily at certain times, and I have considered covering the bed and containers with bedsheets or plastic during the heaviest seedfall. Maybe in future years I’ll have time to keep a large supply of coverings right handy and dash around putting down the coverings and then dash around to take them back up without scattering the seeds everywhere. Maybe.

Just looking at all those seeds is overwhelming

When doing research for this Hub, the autocomplete feature on Google showed me that the most common searches typed in after “maple seeds” were words about being overwhelmed and inundated: “get rid of,” “clean up,” and “removal service.” Yes, people will pay to keep from having to deal with those little fringed wings collecting at the edges of their back decks and all over the front porch and inside the mailbox.

Getting maple samaras out of the growing containers is not a simple task. There are scads of them, so picking them out one at a time would take five or ten minutes of patience per container. It is also incredibly easy to try and pinch a maple key to bring it up and out and find yourself staring in horror as a sprig of parsley – not an easy seed to get germinated – which you’ve pulled up by the roots. And then once you have actually grasped a maple key, what do you do with it? Each has to be dropped carefully into a container, as the slightest breeze will carry them off somewhere else in the garden. Even without wind, maple keys are designed to act like a screwball baseball pitch; as you attempt to drop it straight down, you often find it whirling in big lazy loops like the flight path of Woodstock in the “Peanuts” cartoon. If you spend ten minutes picking whirlygigs out of a windowbox full of salad greens, only to find that half of the seeds are now lodged in a different planting container, in with your carrots, it’s enough to make your head sink slowly into your open palms.

Getting the seeds out, Part 1

I use two different strategies to deal with maple seeds which have fallen into my container of beans, marigolds, peppers, or spinach. One is for a pot with herb or flower or vegetable seeds which are under the soil, which is now littered with a matted overlayer of maple whirligigs. The other method is for when the baby seedlings are well established in the windowbox or pot, with the maple keys tucked in around the young shoots.

Getting the seeds out, Part 2

If I’ve got bare soil with seeds just under the surface. I pour a small amount of water — perhaps a half a cup or so, maybe a cup — very gently while slightly tilting the pot or windowbox. Many, but not all, the maple whirlygigs will wash along toward the edge of the container. I quickly scoop out all I can, then gently bring the container level to let dirt, seeds, and water settle down again. A few seeds will have stuck here and there and if I can pluck them out, I do. If they seem stubbornly stuck in place, I leave them and will pull the maple seedling later.

If the pot has an established eggplant or crop of mustard greens growing well with sturdy stems, then I pour on more water than I use in the first method, maybe twice as much. I soak the maple key mass thoroughly and wait for a bit to let the feathery keys float the the surface, then scoop them off the surface of the water. This method works better than tilting the pot when it comes to getting the maple seeds out from around the stems of the individual plants.

Once they’re gathered up, what to do with the darn things?

It takes a while to get the maple seeds scooped up off the front steps and swept from the driveway and sifted out of the mulch and rinsed off the tops of the planting container. But eventually it happens and I get the thousands of keys gathered up in buckets. I could just dump them into the big rolling trash bin the city picks up once a week. But that’s just not me. I only throw away the few things I absolutely can’t recycle, compost, or upcycle.

I compost the maple samaras, separately. I don’t want to add the maple keys to my regular compost pile, as any cool spots in the pile might let the seeds stay viable. When I combined my compost with the potting mix. I’d just be pre-installing maple seedlings right into the garden bed. After all that work removing them? No way.

So I isolate the maple helicopters in their own composting buckets and let rain and time turn them back into a blackened, well-rotted substance I can safely put in with the regular compost. The sprouted maple tree seedlings will have added a bit of nitrogen, as grass clipping do in the green-brown-green layering used in making the best quality compost.

But throwing maple seeds into the trash or composting them are not the only options. Read on.

Silver maple keys with silver maple syrup? Now that is hardcore homesteading

As I did the internet research I mentioned earlier, I saw search terms which were not about how to get rid of the masses of helicopters. The second most common phrase popping up under the search box was “maple seeds edible.”

I thought, “No way.”

Way. People are eating maple samaras. But I am not entirely sure that they should. I’ve seen a couple of online assertions that Native American people have historically eaten the seeds, but the only official sources of information I found mentioned using the sap of silver maples as food or medicine.

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