We don’t usually think of plants as strategic planners, but they are. All plants compete with each other for necessary but limited resources: pollination services, nutrients, water. They need effective strategies for staying alive and reproducing.
All three common species of native maples that I see everyday are in bloom right now: silver maple, sugar maple, and red maple. Most trees flower in mid- to late spring, after the weather has warmed up and lots of pollinating insects have emerged. So there’s lot of competition for the available pollination services. Maples don’t wait: they bloom earlier than most other trees, usually between mid-March and April, about a month before the leaves appear. In order to ensure that they produce seed when few insects are around to pollinate them, maple flowers rely primarily on wind to do the job.
But they hedge their bets: most maple trees can be pollinated by wind or by insects. And while most trees are either monoecious (each individual bears flowers of both sexes) or dioecious (each individual bears flowers of just one sex), maple trees hedge their bets again: individual trees or even individual branches on the same tree might use either strategy. Clever.
Ever notice that maple trees produce seeds much earlier than most hardwood species? Maple seeds will be ripe in about 6 weeks, at a time when seeds are scarce and animals are hungry. The trees produce a huge overabundance of seeds, ensuring that some will remain to produce new maple trees—but not until next year. The seeds require a cold period before they can germinate, helping to ensure that they won’t begin to grow at the wrong time of year.