Stately companion of grace and grandeur

December 31, 2015

By Katherine Keller

 With a girth of 16 feet, this silver maple dwarfs Gladys Vaught’s home on Griffin Avenue. It is estimated that the tree is about 120 years old.     — PHOTO KATHERINE KELLER

With a girth of 16 feet, this silver maple dwarfs Gladys Vaught’s home on Griffin Avenue. It is estimated that the tree is about 120 years old. — PHOTO KATHERINE KELLER

About two months ago I met Gladys Vaught. I went to her home to pick up photographs and news clippings of the Quonset and Wingfoot homes that she and her family lived in after World War II. As I walked toward her front door, I was awestruck by the enormous silver maple tree that stands next to the house.

Gladys and her husband Harlan bought their house, 3410 S. Griffin Ave., in 1961.

After looking through her collection of clippings and photos, we talked about the tree, a silver maple. She told me of her love and admiration for the tree and of her attachment to it.

The silver maple in 1961. COURTESY GLADYS VAUGHT

The silver maple in 1961. — COURTESY GLADYS VAUGHT

This photo from the 1920s shows the silver maple as a ‘mere sapling’ compared to its present height and girth. — COURTESY GLADYS VAUGHT

This photo from the 1920s shows the silver maple as a ‘mere sapling’ compared to its present height and girth. — COURTESY GLADYS VAUGHT

Referencing a 1920s  picture of her home, Gladys told me, “The maple is in that photo and it was already a big tree back then,” she said. The house was built in 1910.

I think that maple is one of the biggest trees I have seen in Milwaukee, although the Copper Beech in South Shore Park is nearly as large in girth, if not height. I decided a story about the tree would be of interest to our readers, and I wondered if we could determine its age.

I asked John Ebersol to measure the circumference because that is the starting point when calculating the age of a living tree. He did. He said it’s 16 feet.

I found two websites that each provided metrics to estimate the age of a silver maple but they produced conflicting results. So I turned to an expert, here in our backyard, for advice.

FUN FACT On March 26, 1895, King Alfonso planted a pine sapling near Madrid and started Spain’s Arbor Day.

“A 16-foot circumference would equal about a 61-inch diameter,” said Dave Sivyer, City of Milwaukee Dept. of Public Works Forestry Services Manager. “The silver maple is a fast growing species, so if it averaged 0.5 inches diameter growth annually, it would be no more than 120 years old.”

Gladys Vaught said her tree’s roots run under her house and extend far and wide beneath most of her lot.   — PHOTO KATHERINE KELLER

Gladys Vaught said her tree’s roots run under her house and extend far and wide beneath most of her lot. — PHOTO KATHERINE KELLER

That means the giant maple tree sprouted about 1895.

“Still, that’s quite old for an urban tree,” Sivyer said. “The American elm, another fast growing tree in our area, averages about 0.4 inches diameter growth annually. So 0.5 inches, while it doesn’t sound like much, is probably the maximum average annual growth rate for the silver maple.”

The silver maple is native to North America and is one of the most common trees in the United States. Its wood is used as pulp for paper, and for furniture, flooring, and musical instruments. Its sap can be used for making maple syrup but its sugar content is lower than that of the sugar maple, a close relative to the silver maple, which is the preferred source for syrup makers.

Gladys reveres the tree and said, with a twinkle, she tells it that she wants it to stay around longer than she does.

I asked her if she would share more of her thoughts and memories about the tree. This is what she wrote.

For 54 years I have been privileged to share my yard with Ms. Maple aka Her Majesty. She is not just a tree; she is a part of our family.

Through the years, four children, six grandchildren, and now six great-grandchildren, have enjoyed her many gifts. In the spring, her helicopter seeds rain down on them. 

Through the summer, they enjoy the shade she provides. In fall, they run through the blanket of leaves she lays out over the lawn.

In one of her huge arms is a hollowed out cavity that becomes the nursery for two to three baby squirrels, and then she’s their playground for the rest of the summer.

One year I saw a mother raccoon carry her two babies up into that cavity to keep them safe from danger. They lived there for two months, and when they left, the squirrels moved back in.

In heavy winds, her dead branches break off, which then are used for our many family bonfires.

Many species of birds can be seen and heard singing in her mighty branches and the woodpeckers enjoy the insects in her bark.

Her Majesty’s branches loom over my home and her vast root system runs under the house and lawn. She’s my air conditioning in the summer.

Family and friends come to sit on the patio under her canopy of branches and they tell me how they feel stress-free as they relax there.

If you lean up against her for a time, you may just feel her energy as I have many times.

No, she isn’t just a tree, she an old friend.

  —Gladys Vaught

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