Monday, September 3, 2012

Life of a Maple Part 4: Maple Syrup

If the Sugar Maple tree is famous for anything, it is famous for maple syrup.  Early each spring as the snow melts, maple syrup farms spring to life from the Midwest U.S., Northeast U.S., and Southeast Canada.  I personally have payed a few visits to these farms and they are always quite an interesting experience.  The weather is typically beautiful with temperatures between 30 and 50 degrees.  This is at least beautiful compared to the previous winter months.  Snow is typically on the ground but melting, which is producing the next most memorable thing about most maple syrup farms: mud.  The farms I've visited are always unbelievably muddy.  They are so muddy in-fact that horses are often used to gather sap.  Horses are used rather than tractors or other vehicles simply because they don't get stuck in the mud! 

The story of how maple syrup is made begins with the previous late summer.  Late in the summer, the maple tree stops growing and instead stores energy in the form of starch.  This starch is stored in the trees sapwood through the winter.  Come spring when sapwood temperatures reach about 40 degrees the starch is converted to sugar by an enzyme and moves out of the wood and into the tree sap.  Rising temperatures, particularly in the morning as the sun comes up, cause the sap to rise through vessels.  The sap rises towards the trees twigs and branches where the sugar will help the tree to begin flowering and budding. 
A large maple tree with two taps and buckets for collecting sap.
As the sap rises, if a tap is in place, some of the sap will drip out of the tree.  This sap generally contains about 2-3 percent sugar and is collected in buckets hanging from the tap.  One Sugar Maple tap can produce 5 to 15 gallons of sap.  Once the sap is gathered from multiple trees it is boiled down to evaporate off the water and concentrate the sugars to form maple syrup.  Typically 40 gallons of sap will produce about 1 gallon of maple syrup.  While sugar maples are the most common tree for producing syrup, red maples, black maples, silver maples, and even boxelder trees (also in the maple family) all can produce syrup. 

Maple syrup was first discovered by and utilized by Native Americans.  Europeans quickly picked-up on the practice and refined it to the practice we see today. 

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