Why Did so Many Helicoptors Land in New Gloucester Recently?

Photo: Tom Driscoll

You may have noticed a superabundance of “helicopters” that landed around your house in the last week or so.  These are most likely winged seeds from red maple trees and they are all over your driveway, your lawn, and in your rain gutters.  Polynose is another slang name, and “samara” is the official term.

As a helicopter pilot, I have always been fascinated by the maple samaras.

Maple Samaras
Photo: Tom Driscoll

Each little red maple seed has its own wing that allows it to fly away from the tree and land in the soil (hopefully) to start a new tree.

Real helicopters can fly just like maple tree helicopters.  If the engine quits in a real helicopter the pilot can “autorotate” and land safely on the ground, just the same as if the engine was running.  But, as with the maple tree helicopters, the pilot only gets one chance.  No taking off and trying again to find a better location!

The U.S. Forest Service considers the red maple to be the most abundant native tree species in the northeast.  They are also called ‘swamp maples’ and they grow just about anywhere.  Red maple leaves turn bright red in autumn.

Generally, in nature, the greater the number of seeds produced, the less likely that any one seed is successful.  So, of the bazillions of red maple seeds that just fell, only a few will be successful in becoming a new tree.  The ones that landed in the road … no chance of survival!

Later this fall the sugar maple trees will produce their larger ‘helicopters” so we will witness this mass landing once again.

By Tom Driscoll (former helicopter pilot and Maine Forester)

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