Wilderness Underfoot: Maple syrup season

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114124618316644.jpg’, ”, ‘The sugar maple – Acer saccharum is common in all states east of the Rockies, with the exception of Oklahoma, Texas and Florida. The tree is found in every county of Illinois, and along with the basswood and the elm, it is an important part of our region’s southern mesic forests. The sugar maple is the official Wisconsin state tree. Reaching heights more than 100 feet, with a trunk as thick as 3 feet in diameter, this is a long-lived tree. It is not uncommon for a sugar maple to reach 200 years of age, and among the oldest specimens are a 400-year-old tree in Vermont and a 500-year-old tree in Ontario.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114124621017560.jpg’, ”, ‘Tapping a maple tree – The maple must be at least a foot thick in the trunk (this is typically a tree more than 40 years old). A hole of less than a half-inch is drilled about 2 inches deep. Then, a metal tube is inserted to act as a spout. A bucket—or lines of plastic tubing in larger operations—gathers the sap. The sap can be tapped as long as the freeze/thaw weather continues, but not after the buds begin to break open. After that, the flavor diminishes.’);

When freezing nights are followed by warm days, it’s time to tap the sugar maple

Native Americans were the first to distill the sap of the maple into syrup and grainy sugar. They discovered the sweet flavor of “sapsicles” that formed this time of year when maple sap dripped from broken twigs and then froze overnight. To increase the sweetness, they cleverly developed a process of boiling away the water by using hot stones dropped into containers of sap.

European settlers in New England came to relish this treat, improving on the boiling technique with shallow metal pans. The tradition of collecting maple sap in the spring continues to this day.

Maple sap is collected before buds have begun to open, while it is still flavorful. The sap flows heavily during freezing and thawing weather, moved by pressure changes inside the tree. Holes are drilled into the trunk of the tree, and metal tubes are inserted. Usually, buckets or plastic tubing are used to collect the sap.

The sugar concentration of sap as it first comes out of the tree is only 1 percent to 4 percent, so a considerable amount of the water must be boiled off—it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup. The sugar in the sap tapped this spring was originally produced by photosynthesis in last summer’s leaves. It was stored over winter as a carbohydrate.

Although the sugar maple (also known as the rock or hard maple) has the best sap, the red maple, silver maple, and boxelder are also good sources. The sugar maple’s hardwood is an even more precious resource, harvested for use in the production of fine furniture and flooring. Its wood is prized for a variety of attractive patterns in its grain.

From the March 1-7, 2006, issue

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