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In The Country

The Rich and Interesting History of Maple Syrup

Laurie Stover
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(3/2015) Just when you were thinking that winter has overstayed its welcome, nature gives us a sweet little reminder that good things come to those who survive below zero temperatures. Beginning in February and continuing into March, maple sap flows throughout the northeast! The tradition of collecting maple sap can be traced back as early as the 1550s when fur traders and missionaries report watching native people collecting sap.

There is no shortage of interesting legends and folklore surrounding the origins maple sugaring. One involves an Iroquois chief and his wife who are surprised to discover how delicious venison tastes when cooked in water that ran from a maple tree. Another legend describes Glooskap, a man with magical powers, who stumbles upon a village that had become so lazy that they lay about all day beneath trees from which thick, sweet syrup ran copiously. To punish the villagers for their laziness he replaced the sweet syrup in the trees with water from the lake. He leaves the villagers with the message that they will once again be rewarded with sweet water, not syrup, from the trees but only for a short time in the spring. From that time forward the people had to work for their syrup by cooking down the sap.

The true origins of the Native Americanís discovery of maple sap are not quite clear but early settlers reported that natives were quite knowledgeable in the collection, use and storage of maple sap. Many tribes celebrated the first full moon of the spring, calling it the Sugar Moon as it marked the time period when sap was flowing bountifully from the maple trees. Early European colonists learned from the Native Americans about collection and uses of maple sap. Maple trees are found all over the world and there are nearly 130 species so they would have been familiar to the colonists as they are present in northern European countries. However the weather conditions in Europe and many other parts of the world are not favorable for the collection of sap. Over time the Europeans began to customize the process and soon had changed the techniques to suit their own needs. Native Americans used a V shaped gash in the tree to expose the xylem portion of the tree. The sap dripped into hollowed out wooden containers where the Native Americans would skim off the ice each day leaving behind more and more concentrated (and sweeter) sap. It is also believed that the Native Americans would speed the process along by dropping heated rocks into the sap to help evaporate the water. Settlers abandoned the technique of gashing the trees and instead began drilling through the bark and inserting a wooden tube known as a spile. Later wooden troughs and collection bowls were replaced with copper and iron kettles.

Maple sugar became very economically important when the British Parliament enacted the Sugar Tax of 1764. Many colonists became concerned about the reliance of sugar from the British West Indies. Benjamin Rush, founder of Dickenson College, was perhaps the most vocal proponent for using maple sugar as a replacement to cane sugar. Rush, an abolitionist, believed that using an alternate form of sweetener could lessen the colonistsí dependency on the British and the industries that relied on African slaves. Thomas Jefferson was approached by Rush to join the "maple movement" and Jefferson soon began a mission to bring maple sugar to the forefront. Jefferson traveled into the northern states and began talking to land owners in hopes that he could convince them to plant sugar maple stands. School children were put to work collecting and boiling down the sap. What Jefferson had underestimated was the amount of labor involved in the process but he was correct in his deduction that maple sugar was easier to produce than cane sugar. So keen was Jefferson on the idea of the mass production of maple sugar that he even brought sugar maples to Monticello in hopes that he would be able to begin production in Virginia. Unfortunately, despite his efforts sugar maples did not thrive at Monticello.

In the years leading up to the civil war, maple sugar had become quite popular and was selling at half the price of cane sugar. However soon cane sugar and beet sugar prices began to fall and quickly became the new sweetener of choice. New advances in flat metal evaporating pans had made cooking maple sap more efficient. Now that maple sugar was no longer as sought after, maple producers began focusing their efforts on maple syrup. Thanks to the efforts of Thomas Jefferson nearly a century prior, Vermont, New York and other states in the northeast were and still are prolific maple producers.

Current day maple producers enjoy more modern equipment making the sap collection and evaporation more efficient. Plastic tubing runs through the sugar bush, a stand of sugar maples, and down to the sugar shack, the building where sap is stored and cooked. Other advances such as vacuum pumps, reverse osmosis and very large gas or propane heated evaporating pans help streamline the process. Approximately 40 gallons of sugar maple sap are cooked down to make one gallon of pure maple syrup. To be considered syrup, the sugar content must be 66%. Further cooking of the syrup results in maple cream, maple sugar and maple candy. Sugar season is very short and very dependent on the weather. For sap to be flowing well, the daytime temperatures should reach near 40 degrees and evening temperatures below 32 degrees. An early spring, insect defoliation, and dry conditions will all impact the amount, quality and taste of the finished syrup. Maple producers are like all other farmers: their livelihood is at Mother Natureís mercy.

At Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve we enjoy taking part in maple sugaring traditions. Beginning in January we tap our trees. Most of the tapping is done on our red maples as sugar maples are not as readily found in this area. Schools, scouts, and other groups take private tours of the maple sugaring process throughout the season.

Read other articles by Laurie Stover