Menace of Norway Maples
September 27 2005 - Mackinac Island in Lake Huron may be on the
verge of being overrun by an exotic European import, Norway Maple, according to a Michigan
Technological University scientist. The island's signature horses may also be playing
a crucial role in spreading the seeds.
Norway Maples are pretty, fast-growing shade trees available from many
garden catalogs. They are common in local gardens but, taken out of the backyard, they are
big, green invaders.
"In the eastern U.S., where they've become established, diversity is much
lower than in forests made up of native trees," said Chris Webster, assistant professor
of forest resources and environmental science. Given a chance, Norway Maples can
take over. "It leafs out one week earlier than the sugar Maple, and its leaves stay on one
week longer. It outcompetes native species, and it really hurts the spring flowering
They breed like rabbits and grow like weeds - and they can be very hard to
kill. Webster compares them to the mythical Hydra, which grew two snake heads every time one was cut off, its
roots send up many suckers after the main trunk is severed, so mere logging doesn't slow
it down much. The application of powerful herbicides to the stump is the only effective way to
kill it back.
Webster and his team of students began studying the distribution
of Norway Maples on Mackinac Island in 2003. The trees were introduced about a hundred years ago but
islanders never thought of them as a
problem until they came down with the sticky, unattractive tar-spot fungus, to which
Norway Maples are particularly vulnerable.
"We measured and mapped all the trees on the island with GPS," Webster said. The team also determined the age of the trees, which allowed them to look back over the decades and figure out how the population had spread around the island since its introduction during the 1920s.
In 1945, they were confined to urban areas. "They still didn't have any
in the forest," Webster said. "In 1955, there were a few. In 1965, they were scattered
like dust specks." But by 1995, that had changed, with Norway Maples growing in a halo
around developed areas and also springing up in clumps within the forest.
This unusual distribution pattern caught the researchers' attention. As
the trees turned up in rural areas, they didn't just slowly spread outward from town.
They were growing in clusters, most of them near roadways.
This was no accident. "There's a unique circumstance on Mackinac Island," Webster said. "It has a lot of horses, and they produce copious amounts of manure. Residents used to sweep it up in town and haul it out to compost in the forest."
Norway Maple seeds ended up getting mixed with manure and other street
sweepings before being carted into the forest. "Inadvertently, folks on the island were
seeding Norway Maple into the forest and providing it with a good dose of fertilizer,"
Norway Maples have not overrun Mackinac Island's native vegetation - yet.
But Webster believes that as this generation of trees matures and sets seeds, the area could see an explosion
in their numbers and maybe even the end of the natural landscape.
"They are so difficult to control," Webster said. "You'd have a hard time predicting what they'll do in the next few decades."
Nevertheless, Webster thinks that a wait-and-see attitude could prove
disastrous to the island's native vegetation. "We shouldn't lull ourselves into a false sense of security," he said. "If you wait until you prove it's a problem, it could be almost impossible to stop."