Here's why we're seeing an abundance of maple tree seeds around Chicago this year
Maple tree "helicopter" seeds are everywhere this spring.
They're fun when you're a kid, and your only thought is to toss them in the air and watch them spin down. But they're not nearly as much fun when you become the one responsible for cleaning them up.
Maple tree seeds are covering everything right now; gutters, roofs, driveways, and yards. In the southwest suburbs of Chicago, I have witnessed those flying seeds that look like helicopters landing all over.
In my backyard, our silver maple tree was unusually stuffed full of them. And when they dropped, they landed everywhere.
While it's not unusual to see many of these seeds falling from the tree this time of year, this is different. It is an unusually abundant crop of maple seeds.
How maple tree seeds work
Maple trees are flowering trees that disperse dry fruit to reproduce. Unlike the fleshy fruits of apples and pears for example, which break open to spread seeds, maple seeds stay in their dry casing as they float through the air.
The dry fruit is called a samara, and its purpose is to spread seeds. In maple trees, it grows a wing-like shape on one side, which causes the seeds to spin through the air, like a helicopter.
The helicopter shape helps the tree to disperse its seeds further away from the tree, and they can travel pretty far on the wind.
Ask the plant clinic
I decided to take my maple seed issue to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. They offer a plant clinic where experts answer all your plant questions and help you make sure your yard is full of healthy plants.
The clinic is currently closed to in-person walk-ins due to Covid restrictions, but you can call with your questions (630) 719-2424 from 11 AM to 3 PM weekdays or send an email to: email@example.com.
I emailed the plant clinic to find out just what is going on with all the maple seeds this year.
Most likely due to dry weather
The experts at the Arboretum informed me they have been seeing abundant maple tree seeds all around the region this spring. They believe it most likely is caused by dry weather that happened around pollination time.
"With no rain to wash the pollen out of the air, more pollen made it to the female flowers and more seeds have been produced. The tree put a lot of energy into seed production and this, coupled with low rainfall is delaying leaf emergence."
They reassured me that the leaves should catch up soon, and a good rainfall will help them expand. They recommended watering the tree if we don't get much rain.
How to water established trees
If we don't get a good soaking rain soon, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has some advice for watering established trees and shrubs. According to them, contrary to what you might think, during droughts, even older trees may need watering.
You may not realize your plants are stressed from lack of water for several months or even years.
The university experts recommend using soaker hoses or tree water bags to be sure the water is getting to the tree's drip line. (The dripline is under the tree as far as the furthest leaves in the canopy extend.) And the water needs to get at least 12 to 15" deep in the ground.
If you want more information, here is a free video they offer on how to water trees and shrubs.
Now what to do with all those seeds
If you have maple seeds that fell in your yard or garden bed, you do have the option to just leave them. Most won't sprout, and they will turn into organic material that improves your soil.
However, if you've got a lot of seed cover like we do this year, you'll need to be prepared to start pulling out sprouts as they come. You may want to get a head start by raking up the seeds before they begin to sprout.
And don't forget to make sure your gutters are clear of the seeds as they can cause clogging.