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Seeing Maple ‘Copters? Here’s What They Are

Maple seeds have been swirling everywhere this spring. Find out what it means and the science behind their flight!

Helicopters, maple ‘copters, whirlybirds, twisters or whirligigs – no matter what you call a maple seed, they’re still an endless source of fascination. Many of our Farmers’ Almanac readers and Facebook fans have been asking about the large number of “helicopters” they’ve been seeing, and does it mean anything?

What Are Maple Copters, Anyway?

First, the technical term for this winged seed is samara, which refers to a specialized fruit that is designed to travel long distances from the parent tree. Some ash and elm trees also produce samaras, although the maple’s samaras are the very best at flying.

Maple trees that are healthy sometimes skip a year in seed formation, either due to poor pollination or to an exceptionally good growing season the year before. An over-abundance of samaras sometimes means the tree experienced some sort of “stress” the previous year, so producing a bumper crop of seeds is the tree’s way of carrying on the species, should that stress continue and that particular tree not survive.

Why Do Maple Seeds Fly?

One reason is that among trees, maples have some of the largest, widest canopies. That means for a seedling to grow, the seed can’t simply fall to the ground beneath the tree like a nut or a fruit. And, since only a few animals eat the seeds – mostly turkeys, finches and on rare occasions, squirrels and chipmunks – there is very little chance that wildlife will pick up the seeds and carry them elsewhere. To get around these obstacles, maples developed winged samaras as a way to transport their fruit to sunnier, more hospitable places.

Winged seed of the red maple

A Natural Lesson in Aerodynamics

Maple seeds are one of those natural wonders that feature a nearly perfect design. In fact, scientists are using what they’re learning from these flying seeds to develop micro flying machines and even tiny helicopters that can be used for space exploration or to learn more about the atmospheres of planets like Mars.

It all starts with the shape. With a long wing that balances the weight of the seed, maple seeds are perfectly designed for flight. Since the seeds don’t fall away from the tree until they’re dry, they’re very light, which helps them travel farther.

If you examine a maple seed closely, you’ll notice that the wing gets wider further away from the seed. When the seed spins, the air moving over the wide end of the wing moves faster than the air closer to the seed, which gives the seed the lift it needs to stay aloft. Then there are the veins on the leading edge of the wing, which generate just enough turbulence to help it cut through the air.

Macro close up, studio flash light picture, of a dry maple seed, autumn feelings. Detailed wing structure with stunning natural nerves, selective focus with shallow depth of field

Tiny Tornadoes

Those are the basic ideas behind flying maple seeds, but when scientists dug a little deeper into the aerodynamics, they found something interesting. While observing the seeds in a smoke-filled wind tunnel, researchers noticed that they actually form a small vortex – like a tiny tornado – atop the wings. That vortex lowers the pressure above the seed, generating even more lift. Insects and hummingbirds rely on the same kind of vortex to hover in one spot.

Wings Aren’t Just for Flight

The wings give maple seeds another huge advantage. Once a maple seed lands, the wing helps it stand upright between blades of grass or other foliage. The upright seeds have a better chance of embedding themselves into the soil below. Once pressed into the soil – whether by a passing foot, the weight of snow or something else – the wings break away so that the seed can germinate more easily.

When Will The ‘Copters Fly?

It depends on what kind of maple tree you have, and each is on its own schedule:

Silver maple – late spring.

Red maple -in late spring or early summer and fall.

Sugar maple – The samaras have 1-inch wings that ripen from early summer into autumn. About two weeks after samaras mature, sugar maples drop them.

Now that you know more about the maple’s flying seeds, you’ll be even more fascinated by the hundreds of them you see swirling towards the ground each year.

Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental and green living topics. Her article on woolly worm caterpillar folklore appears in the 2020 Farmers' Almanac.

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Teresa Weeks

I hate whirlybirds! I have spent countless hours picking them out of my flower beds! And, then cutting out miniature maple trees growing where other plants are located! They are a nuisance in Iowa!

Nick

So I came here by looking around for an answer to a question I have. The helicopters started dropping 2 days ago. They got all in my flower bed since. I went to put a fresh layer of dirt in my flower bed but I left the helicopters in the bed and put dirt over them.

Do I have to worry that these hundreds of maple seeds will sprout? I really didn’t think much of it because my wife pointed out that if they were seeds we would have maples growing everywhere but now seeing this maybe putting dirt over them was a bad idea?

Sean Graham

Yes, you will have tiny maples in your landscape. Although I doubt more than normal as squirrel and chipmunk love to plant them for you even if you do nothing.

Mary

How many years before a Japanese maple begin to produce helicopters?

Susan Higgins

Hi Mary, there are so many cultivars of these maple trees that it’s hard to say for sure. Some experts say 2 years, others 10, depending on if they’re growing in ideal conditions.

Chuck Gill - Goffer Nursery

I am looking for a Maple, to ID. It produces red helicopters or seed pods. It is “not” a red maple. It is growing in a wet land area.

Marylou Hampleman

Why is my silver maple dropping helicoptera in the spring? I don’t remember it doing this before

Mark

I read it can take 10 years for a silver maple to start dropping keys.

Marylou Hampleman

Why is my silver maple dropping helicopters in the spring? I don’t recall them doing this before

Kurt

I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis MO and we called them maple squirts. When they’re green you can shoot the seed out by squeezing them. It was fun.

Jack Gann

As a child, I learned from other
children that you could put the
wing portion in your mouth,
on top of the tongue & roof of
the mouth, & blow. You can
with practice, make a shrill
whistle. It was much fun.

Guth

I had to use a shop vac this year on the non grass areas. It worked great. I went to 4×6 above ground gardens this year and put landscape cloth then indoor outdoor carpet on top of that instead of mulch so I can sweep or vacuum them up next year too.

Karen McKee

We have lived in our current home for 3yrs. We are both over 70. This year our tree dropped thousands of whirlybirds. We weren’t able to rake them up, they just kept falling. Now our front yard is full of seedlings some now up to 4-5”. They mow weekly but we don’t know what to do. If we leave them they will kill the grass. Is there a weed killer that will destroy the whirlybirds but not our grass. Can’t seem to get any answers locally. We live in Topeka, KS had an extremely cold winter and now an enormous amount of rain. Please help if you can

Robert Bainbridge

Triamec is a liquid weed killer that I use. It kills broad leaf plants in the lawn without killing the grass

Paul corwin

Help,my maple tree drops seeds three,four times a year.It’s about 45 years old and it has beeb doing this about four years now.This spring is the worst ever.My yard and surounding area are covered.

Jeannie

Thats why we always called them pollynoses !

EB

What season/ do they drop in Massachusetts?

Gary Incremona

Yes, the seed inside is edible.

Sharon Smith

We have a lot of the single ones in Amsterdam. They are so efficient at germinating. I have seen them forming a varpet of seedlings.We need to keep them swept up, otherwise they will grow out of the drain hole on our balcony.The roots grow very fast.

clifflo

Are maple seeds edible ?

Kevin

I have 2 in my side yard. 1 Sugar Maple and 1 Canadian Maple. They are 60+ feet high and 45+ years old. I know ALL about Whirligigs… But in the fall they are BEAUTIFUL and help provide oxygen to the Planet !!!!

Jackie

Now tell us efficient ways to clean them up, please? These guys are stuck in our lawn!

Sheila

When my husband and I were just starting our family he would help his grandfather. In return papaw insisted he pay for the help. Instead of blowing the money we went to Lowes and purchased a Silver Maple tree every week for a month. They are now probably 40 ft tall and just as wide. Each one was planted as a dedication to my husbands grandfather. Our helicopters are his spirit protecting our land. Love this article and we love our trees. They are now 25+ years old and growing strong.

Nana

Thanks for posting…..wondered why there are so many this year!

gail dekubber

i can remember when i was a little girl, i use ti split them in half and stick them to my nose!

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