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In Search of Bigtooth

Though difficult to find and hard to grow from seed, the bigtooth maple matures into a colorful, hardy, disease-resistant beauty.

By Rob McCorkle

The ancestors of modern bigtooth maples were thriving in Texas during the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, when ice sheets ad-vanced across North America before retreating. Scattered stands of the trees still survive in sheltered canyons in Central and West Texas.

As the continent's ice sheets shrunk northward during the beginning of the Holocene Epoch at the end of the Pleistocene, and Mexican seas retreated from what is now Texas, the climate began to warm up and dry out. Pockets of the relict tree species were left behind primarily in the cool, moist, shaded canyons of the Sabinal and Frio rivers in Bandera, Real and Uvalde counties, and the mountains of West Texas. There are also bigtooth maples along Cibolo Creek in Kendall County, as well as woodlands where bigtooth maples are common at Fort Hood in Bell County.

Patches of the bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum Nutt) are also found in western Oklahoma, northern Mexico and the mountains of the western U.S., with the largest concentration of bigtooths covering large swaths of mountain forests east of Salt Lake City, Utah.

A state natural area near Vanderpool - Lost Maples - pays tribute to this tenacious hardwood whose colorful fall foliage draws tens of thousands of leaf-peepers each fall. A good explanation of the bigtooth maple's geographical distribution and botanical classification can be found inside the exhibit hall of Lost Maples' visitor center. Before the Pleistocene Ice Ages, the maple's ancestral stock - from which sugar maples would evolve - had already appeared.

It spread across the northern part of the continent, with a western type in the mountains and eastern type in the forests. As ice advanced, North American forests migrated southward and maples migrated also. The western type became the bigtooth maple.

During one of the advances, it reached the Balcones Escarpment and Sabinal Canyon. The bigtooth maple is a distant cousin of the eastern sugar maple, from which sweet syrup is derived, but is more closely related to the chalk, black, Florida or Southern maple and the Guatemala and sugar maple. All are species of the genus Acer that includes more than 150 species of maple trees, shrubs and vines.

The bigtooth maple also is known by a handful of other names, including the canyon maple, Sabinal maple, Uvalde bigtooth maple, Southwestern bigtooth maple and Western sugar maple.

The state natural area provides easy public access to a number of old-growth bigtooth maples, but the showy tree also is quite prolific on private ranches, where they have survived to maturity without succumbing in earlier years to roaming armies of browsing white-tailed deer that find the foliage a sweet snack. Though the bigtooths prefer the cooler, wetter climate at higher elevations, they have done well in the Sabinal Canyon country, where the highest elevation is around 2,000 feet.

Jesus Rubio, park ranger at Lost Maples SNA, likes to point out to visitors the state champion bigtooth that rises 40 feet from the Sabinal Canyon floor at the head of the park's popular Maple Trail. In 2006, the Texas Forest Service recorded the tree as having an 85-inch trunk circumference and 45-foot crown spread.

"The maples begin to color in late October if we get some cool, crisp nights," Rubio says.

"They'll usually peak out the first half of November. That's what draws the crowds, upwards of 80,000 people in the span of six weeks."

The Maple Trail is one of the easiest trails to access in the park - and with giant boulders, soaring limestone canyon walls, springs and the idyllic Sabinal River - one of the most scenic pathways. A wayside exhibit at the trailhead points out how to easily identify the prehistoric tree, which some people confuse with the common sycamore that has much larger leaves and lobes, or "teeth." Contrary to its name, don't expect the bigtooth maple, the sign reads, to have "big leaves or very many teeth."

Farther down the trail lies the Maple Grove. An interpretive panel explains why the maples thrive in the mostly shaded and cool environment blessed with fertile soil and limestone-sweetened groundwater.

"The environment down in these canyons is like a terrarium," explains Rubio, pointing to small openings in the canyon walls where springs seep through during rainy spells. "You can walk into some of these areas when it's 100 degrees up on the flats and immediately feel the difference in temperature."

As a small, savvy group of Texas nurserymen are discovering, bigtooth maples, once established, are hardy, drought-tolerant, practically disease-free and moderately fast growers that add as much as three feet of growth annually. But it is the tree's autumn foliage, ablaze in hues of yellow, orange and red, that is making the bigtooth an increasingly popular landscaping choice in all but the coastal plains' salty environment.

Given enough cold nights and sunny days in early fall, these Texas natives can light up a suburban yard or countryside. Just ask Baxter Adams.

His love affair with the bigtooth maple began shortly after moving to a ranch on Love Creek west of Medina in 1981 to grow apples, which quickly turned into a profitable operation. However, it was the colorful bigtooth maples that turned out to be an eye-popping surprise for the Waco native.

"I woke up one morning," Adams says, "and looked out across the countryside, and said, 'Jesus, what is this?' I'd never seen a maple tree in color before. I was amazed."

But when the retired oilman-turned-farmer tried to find someone to sell him some of the maples, he found nobody was really growing them commercially. When winter arrived, he and his wife, Carol, waited until the hundreds of little maple seedlings inside a fenced area went dormant, dug them up and transplanted them to containers.

After years of trial and error with different fertilizers, varying amounts of watering and the like, Adams discovered he could grow the bigtooths by giving them moderate care and the right fertilizer, a timed-release product called Osmocote.

He soon found the sale of the bigtooths to builders, landscapers and individuals eclipsing his popular Medina-grown apples. Adams, now one of the largest growers of bigtooth maples in Texas, struggles to meet the demand for the maples, which he transplants from fertile farmland on State Highway 16 in Medina when they reach four to five feet.

In 2006, Adams sold out of his 7- to 14-footers grown in cloth containers, called grow bags. Big trees were in short supply the following year. "The tree has really gotten popular, and there's a reason for it. It's turned out to be a terrific tree," he says.

Though the bigtooths' foliage won't be as dazzling in warmer climes, such as Houston, they will grow like gangbusters given ample rainfall and fertile soil. But in the cooler, drier limestone hills of central Texas, bigtooth maple fever is spreading to cities such as Boerne, located close to the native tree's easternmost range.

Adams' Love Creek Nursery has sold more than 100 field-grown bigtooths each of the past two years to the Boerne Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas. The organization launched a "Bigtooth Maples for Boerne, Texas" campaign in 2006.

Backed by a grant from the Lende Foundation and with support from others, including the Cibolo Nature Center and the Boerne Parks & Recreation Department, the native plant organization "adopts out" trees to qualified businesses, civic groups and individuals, who pledge to take care of the maples and plant them inside the city limits.

"We want to reintroduce the bigtooth maple to Boerne, where trees have been negatively impacted by deer and development," says Suzanne Young, who manages the two-year-old bigtooth project designed to put the town on the fall foliage tour map. "You know, everyone goes to New England for autumn color, but they need to realize we have beautiful fall colors here in Texas, too, just a little later in the season."

And, Young adds, once a person hears the story of the bigtooth maple's history, "How can you not want to plant one?"

Where to Buy Bigtooth Maples

One of the greatest challenges of growing bigtooth maples is trying to find a place to buy the trees. That paucity speaks to the difficulty of trying to propagate the hardy tree from its delicate, double-winged seed pods, or samaras.

The trees don't normally seed every year, but when they do, the foliage won't produce good color. Seeds can germinate many years after they fall, not all in one year.

Love Creek Nursery, a leading producer of the trees for more than 20 years, is still struggling to crack the seed's germination code, but is enjoying continued success at raising tiny saplings to maturity for sale to both wholesalers and individuals.

Love Creek maples retail from $40 for a 5-gallon container to $125 for a 20- to 25-gallon tree. They are sold from mid-December through mid-March. The nursery and Cidar Mill restaurant/gift store are located in Medina, the "Apple Capital of Texas." Call (800) 449-0882 or visit online at www.lovecreekorchards.com.

A few Hill Country growers, however, are enjoying some success collecting and germinating the tiny one-inch, rose-colored seed that matures in September.

Chuck Zanzow, a science teacher at Boerne High School, has been propagating a small quantity of the bigtooths from seeds for a number of years. He operates Green Cloud Native Plants, a small wholesale nursery. Call (830) 249-3844.

David Winningham has been selling bigtooth maples at his Natives of Texas Nursery on Highway 16 between Medina and Kerrville for about 10 years. His retail nursery specializes in a host of native plants and trees, including the Texas madrone, another Ice Age relict species.

Nursery manager Pablo Cruces, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico, tends to his hothouse of tiny seedlings sprouted from the seeds he has collected. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to raise the native bigtooths, though Winningham is just that, retired from NASA. But it does take patience and perseverance.

Maples are hard to grow in quantity, but aren't as labor intensive as the madrone, according to Winningham, who says maples will always be a specialty item.

During the summer of 2007, the largest bigtooths he had in stock were 5 to 6 feet tall, selling for $110. He'll sell you a one-footer in a one-gallon pot for as little as $10. Call (830) 896-2169 or drop by the nursery in a gorgeous Hill Country setting.

Winningham champions the bigtooth because it is a part of Texas history.

"They come from a time when our climate was a lot cooler. It's an example, like the madrone, of a plant that can survive climate changes. When the climate changes again, and it gets cooler, they'll come back out of the canyons, repopulate and become a more dominant species."

Watson Farms on U.S. Highway 290 in Stonewall also sells bigtooth maples. Though Sam and Jo Ann have been raising the trees for 10 years, 2006 was the first year the trees flowered. They have about 900 maples planted on their 15-acre farm on Old San Antonio Road just east of Fredericksburg.

"When we first started growing them," Jo Ann Watson says, "it was a landscaper tree. Now we're having a second run of customers who bought the trees six years ago and decided they are wonderful trees - attractive, hardy and relatively fast growing."

Watson Farms sells most of its bigtooth crop locally, with Austin being a strong customer base. "They're in tremendous demand," says Watson, who along with her husband start field-digging the trees each January to prepare for sale.

For more Information

For more information about Watson Farms and bigtooth maple tree availability, call (830) 644-2616.

Retailers who might have bigtooths in stock include:

  • Covington Nursery in Rowlett, (972) 475-5888;
  • Barton Springs Nursery, (512) 328-6655;
  • Skinner Nurseries in Manor, (512) 278-0997;
  • Texas Grown Plants, (512) 288-0806;
  • Ted's Trees in Austin, (512) 928-8733;
  • Rainbow Gardens, (210) 680-2394;
  • Milberger's Landscaping and Nursery in San Antonio,
    (210) 497-3760;
  • Dodds Family Tree Nursery & Florist in Fredericksburg,
    (830) 997-9571; and
  • Hill Country African Violets and Nursery in Boerne,
    (830) 249-2614.

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