John Burroughs, farmer and famous naturalist in the 19th century, wrote, “Next week, or the week after, it may be time to begin plowing, and other sober work about the farm, but this week we will picnic among the maples, and our campfire shall be an incense to spring.”

Late February through March is the time of maple sugaring in northeastern North America, which is the original range of sugar maple trees.

During that time, many afternoons are warm, which expands cells in trees’ cambium layers, just under the bark. That swelling draws winter-stored, watery-looking sap up trees’ trunks, cell by cell, to fill those expanding cells. However, the cells contract during nightly cold, further squeezing the sap up, cell by cell.  

Native Americans of America’s northeastern forests were the first people to make pure maple syrup, probably by accident. I like to think a group of American Indians camped where water wasn’t available to drink or cook in. But those people knew that by slashing maple and birch tree bark, they could collect the trees’ sap.

They put food into the sap in clay pots by the fire and let it all simmer for a while. They found the food to be sweeter when boiled in maple or birch tree sap. Then they might have boiled sap down by itself and discovered pure maple syrup, their only sweetener.

European pioneers had honey in Europe but knew nothing of maple syrup, even though there are maple and birch trees in Europe. They learned the process from Native people, and we have had pure maple syrup ever since.

Whether maple syrup is made commercially or for home use, a few tools and procedures are needed. For home use, a hand drill can be used to drill a few small holes into each large tree to penetrate the cambium layer under the bark. Then a spile is tapped into each puncture to conduct the sap into a container.

Sap is regularly collected and poured into a boiling-down container. The boiling sap emits lots of steam, but the sugar stays in the cooking container. The sugar burns and becomes darker, and the liquid becomes thicker. Pure maple syrup is the resulting product. 

Sugar maples have 2% sugar in their sap; other maples and birches have only 1%. About 40 gallons of sugar-maple sap boil down to 1 gallon of syrup. Lots of sap, time, and fuel go into making pure maple syrup, the reason it is expensive to buy. But refrigerated maple syrup keeps quite a while.

Pure maple syrup is another gift from nature and Native Americans, along with corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and pumpkins. Today all those products are big business.    


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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