• The Low Down

Helicopters and stress

Here’s a forecast to bank on: periodic helicopter flurries in late spring and early summer, followed next season by an explosion of toothpicks in lawns and gardens. It has nothing to do with aircraft or detonations; it’s about stress.


Short-term, moderate stress can prompt one to act. Yet the past two years of social isolation, public-health mandates and worry have made it clear undue stress can cause ill effects.


Too much stress also harms trees, which in turn impacts us. Trees pushed to their limits dump more pollen into the air, and then tremendous amounts of seeds. Before weather extremes became the norm, our trees were modest about reproduction. Most years they’d produce enough offspring to keep their species going, and every 3-7 years had a “mast year” in which they’d splurge on sex for a heavy seed crop.


Prior to the climate crisis, trees checked their bank books each summer to see how much stored starch they had on hand. This informed how many flower buds they’d set for next year. Trees evolved to make only seeds.


But droughts and extreme rainfall disrupted this model. When conditions threaten a tree's survival, its financial department gets left out of the consultation loop. The tree makes an ultra-heavy seed load, or distress crop, even if it needs the energy to survive. This was once seen in conifers out West during lethal insect outbreaks, and rarely at that.


The same pattern occurs here periodically since 2013, when foresters were awed by a first-time distress crop on hardwoods, especially sugar maples. This was on the heels of the 2012 drought, which set all-time records for low soil moisture, and was repeated again in 2017 and 2019 after similar weather. Distress crops are a bid to keep a species going at the expense of parent trees, which shift energy stores away from their survival toward the next generation.


In a distress-crop year we need extra handkerchiefs, as most trees are wind-pollinated, their light pollen traveling many kilometres. Such pollen storms engender a shameless excess of “helicopters.” In distress-crop years, so many spent flowers, and later seeds, drop from maples that they fill gutters and clog storm drains.


Maple seeds or samaras have a wing that makes them spin, prolonging their flight and travel distance. In most cases it’s a one-way trip, though many children go through a phase where they’ll scoop handfuls of winged seeds, along with a requisite amount of dirt, and fling them aloft, delighted with their helicopters. But maybe there’s an app for that now.


Our native maples (sugar, red, silver, and Manitoba) all produce helicopters. Next spring should be fun as they germinate, spawning Lilliputian maple forests in lawns and gardens. Manitoba, silver and soft maples drop seeds in early June, with hard maple a few weeks later. Don’t be alarmed if your maple appears brown this spring; that’s just the seeds as they mature and dry.


Before wielding the shop-vac or broom, though, I recommend venturing out with the kids to get a few helicopters in your hair.


Val-des-Monts resident Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Extension educator.