View Full Version : Maple Trees

09-17-2005, 03:11 AM
I'm looking for information about maple trees and harvesting sap for syrup and sugar. I've found some technical descriptions, but I was wondering if anyone had any personal experiences or details they could add.

My fantasy WIP has magical maple trees and I'd like to have a better understanding of the reality of a maple harvest before I "wave my magic wand" and make reality fit my story.

09-17-2005, 07:25 AM
I have no personal experience--I don't think we have sugar maples here in the south--but if I may quote from Shirley Jackson's hysterically funny autobiography Raising Demons (she also has another one named Life Among the Savages), here is her account of making maple syrup:

"When the sap was definitely running that spring we thought we would tap our maple trees, and my husband consulted the Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences for directions, while I drove down to the grocery to get mason jars. Laurie drilled holes in four maples, just as the encyclopaedia said to, and we hung the jars on pegs under the holes. I set up a washtub on the back of the stove. Some friends from New York called to ask if we were free for the weekend because they thought they might drive up and we said we were sorry but we were sugaring off, and could they make it the weekend after? Laurie and his father kept emptying the jars full of sap into the washtub on teh back of the stove, and we kept it boiling day and night. After nearly five days we had boiled down about a pint and a half of syrup, and we put it into tiny medicine bottles, about enough for one pancake each, and sent it to all our friends, with a label saying it came from our own sugarbush. We estimated that what with the electricity and the repairs to the stove and the mason jars and the pots and the laundry bill and the wallpaper in the dining room peeling off from the steam our maple syrup had cost us about seventy-five dollars a gallon. I took movies of Laurie tapping the maple trees. Someone told us later that you were supposed to strain the sap before you boiled it."

This actually gives a pretty good idea of what it entails--hope it helps a little!

09-17-2005, 09:21 AM
I did this once or twice many years ago -- school project -- and the description above sounds pretty much on the mark. I didn't use mason jars -- used cleaned 1-gallon milk jugs instead -- and made simple spigots (correct word?) out of wooden plugs for the sap to drip off of ...

09-17-2005, 09:40 AM
No personal experience, but I know this place (http://www.lmgnc.org/) taps their trees seasonally. Maybe one of their experts could help you out.

09-19-2005, 06:59 PM
My advice is to go to the library. Check out the "First Person Rural," "Second Person Rural," and "Third Person Rural" books by Noel Perrin. Excellent first hand accounts of making maple syrup from someone who took it up late in life., which means you won't be overwhelmed with technicalities.

I do know Mason jars won't work in real maple country. You need buckets. Great big buckets.

We do make Maple syrup around here. Not as much as some of the northeastern states, but a good bit. Maple trees are found over much of the country, but it takes very cold winters and warm springs to get the sap to run properly. Very cold winters drain the sap from the trees. This is why most trees don't freeze, swell, and burst when the temp hits twenty below zero. A warm spring day then brings the sap up. It floods through the tree. Tapping a tree is like turning on a water faucet.

The Noel Perrin books are wonderful, but most libraies have numerous books about making Maple syrup first hand.

09-21-2005, 12:55 AM
Thanks for the references. I checked "First Person Rural" out from the library last night and it has the type of information I'm looking for. It's got a description about how to make maple sugar at home, but after reading the Shirley Jackson experience I'm thinking twice about trying it. :)

09-21-2005, 02:14 AM
I do know Mason jars won't work in real maple country. You need buckets. Great big buckets.
Bigger operations skip even those and run sap aquaducts to large collection bins.

09-21-2005, 09:51 AM
Bigger operations skip even those and run sap aquaducts to large collection bins.

Yes, we have a couple around here who do that. But it's too cold and impersonal for my taste. There are still some pretty big outfits that use the buckets. I prefer it.

Making maple syrup is one of those things where the process is as much fun as the final product.

09-21-2005, 10:29 AM
Hey! All I know is that I love maple syrup!
Nah, seriously, good luck with your project. I vaguely remember this subject in school. But what I do remember is that as long as Aunt Jamama ...Jemima was making it, I would always have my maple syrup around. http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/images/smilies/biggrin.gif

Good Subject...Now I'm hungry for pancakes at 1:30 in the morning.

09-21-2005, 09:51 PM
Maple syrup is without doubt the finest edible material from nature that there is, and I will happily share my experiences in preparing this delectable with you. There is a great deal of it made here in southwestern Ontario (Canada).

Firstly, maple syrup can be made from the sap of practically any species of maple tree. But as you may suspect, some species are more prolific in their production of sap than others, and produce sap with a somewhat higher sugar content. One must watch the time of the season somewhat. The sap run is to bring the tree out of winter 'hibernation' if you want to call it that and prepare it for making leaves and such. As the season advances, the tree gets to a stage where it adds other components to the sap along with the stored sugars. After this point, the sap and hence any syrup made from it has a very disagreeable flavour.

The process of making syrup is simplicity itself: collect the sap and boil it down (to remove the excess water in the sap) until what remains is a relatively thick, light golden-brown liquid. That's the syrup. It does not matter how you go about boilng the sap, but a caution here is that the more you boil out the water the thicker the syrup becomes. Boiling even a minute too long produces a syrup that will begin to crystallize when it cools and puts you on the way to making maple sugar. The sugar is what you get when essentially all of the water has been removed.

Collecting the sap is relatively easy, but it requires that you drill holes into the outer layers of wood in the tree trunk to direct some of the sap out of the tree. I have used the following 'ecological' method several times. Take a piece of a small brranch about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter from the same tree and cut it into pieces about 5 inches long. Drill a 1/8 inch or so down the centre of a piece, peel off the bark, and carve off half of the piece down to the middle so that what you have left looks like a combination of a tube and a trough. Whittle the open end of this 'spile' to fit the size of the hole you have drilled about 3 - 4 inches into the tree, and tap it into the hole. In a very few seconds the sap should begin to follow this path out of the tree and begin to drip steadily from the end of the spile. I have seen it happen during a good sap run that the sap runs out in a steady stream rather than dropwise. I use branch pieces from the same tree in order to not introduce foreign organisms or materials that may infect the tree during the sap run, and when the run is finished, one can simply break the spile off and allow the tree to grow over the piece that is left inside of it. Much easier on the tree than trying to cover over a gaping hole.

Now it should be obvious that once the tree has been tapped, you need to provide clean containers to catch the dripping sap. Transfer the sap from the containers to the pot for boiling, and away you go

Incidentally, if you want a real coffee taste treat, take a cup full of the sap that has been half boiled down to make an instant coffee. Unbelievable flavour!

What I have described above works very well for small-scale syrup production. It goes without saying that the more syrup you want to make, the more efficient must be your collection and boiling methods. 'Industrial' scale production of maple syrup uses a network of plastic tubing to interconnect the trees and lead the sap directly into the refinery (what used to be called the "sugar shack"). Once there, the sap may have much of the excess water removed through osmositic pressure separators before going on to the boilers. Please note that maple syrup can ONLY be made by boiling the sap, as the flavour comes from the caramelization of sugars through heating. It is not simply a matter of removing all the water.

When making small batches of syrup, say by boiling down a pot of sap on your kitchen stove, be prepared for a mess on the ceiling, and whatever you do, do not go away even for a minute thinking you will be back before the pot boils dry. (But that's a story for another time...)

Finally, it is worth noting that syrup can be made from the sap of a number of tree species, not just from maple sap. The two most common in addition to maple are walnut and birch. Both of these species run sap in sufficient quantities to make syrup that is indistinguishable from real maple syrup by all but the most discriminating tastes. Fruit trees may also run large quantities of sap. I have seen a pear tree actually form a puddle of sap on the ground below a branch that the tip was broken off of just before the sap run began. The determining factor in these cases is usually that the size of the tree is not sufficient or that there are a great deal more maple trees around than the other species. Typically, one would put AT MOST three spiles into a tree that is between 1 and 1-1/2 feet in diameter, and most likely only two. Smaller trees are generally left alone.

I'm glad to see you are doing your homework as a writer for the details of something with which you are not familiar. I once read a book who's story was set on a tobacco plantation in the Philippines. Very interesting story until three-quarters of the way through the book, when the author for some reason had a fire running rampant through the tobacco fields. If you have ever seen a field of full-grown tobacco you would know just how impossible that scenario would be, and as a result that author's credibility took a very steep nosedive in my estimation. Keep up the good work. If you would like more discussion of this, just let me know.

09-21-2005, 11:56 PM
My experience is that syrup made from walnut and birch can be told from real maple syrup by anyone who's ever tasted both. They taste nothing alike, in my opinion. If they do, you've overboiled the sap, and you're tasting teh carmelization. YOu should be tasting both the carmelization AND the tree. Maple has a distictive taste, and so does walnut and birch. If this taste is missing, you've made low grade syrup.

I think how you boil the sap is extremely important. Probably the most important part of the entire process. It can make all the difference in taste. Boiling sap is more an art than a science.

Big syrupers make it a science because they have to. The best syrupers know that no two batches of sap should be boiled at the same temperature for the same length of time, and you have to watch the boiling constantly for a number of factors.

Maple syrup, of course, comes in several grades, and each of has a distinctive color and taste.

And while I'm sure it's happened, I've never tasted truly high quality maple syrup that was made inside on a stove. Good, edible syrup can be made this way, but it's far from the best quality.

10-15-2005, 10:10 PM
Saanen's description sounds on the mark, except that I seem to recall we put a sort of spout in each hole--a metal tube, at most one inch in diameter--so the sap wouldn't just drip directly down the side of the tree. It flowed out the spout and from there into buckets that we hung on the tree. I don't remember for sure but I think the buckets were hung directly from the spouts, not from separate pegs. The spouts pointed slightly downward, though, so there had to be some additional support for the buckets so they would stay on the spouts and not pull them out of the tree.

10-29-2006, 07:31 AM
Digging up the past, here... ;)

Maple trees are going to play an important role in my next fantasy story. I intend to set part of the story during the spring sap harvest. If anyone has any other anecdotes about maple trees and making syrup, I'm very interested. The ones in this thread have already been helpful.

I also have a question about stretching reality. One of the points made previously is that it takes cold winters to cause the sap to run. My story is set in a fantasy world where magic is prevalent, and I've already established in the story that the maple trees in question are magical in nature. Would you consider it too much a stretch if the sap harvest occured in a city with a climate like San Francisco, i.e. chill and rainy winters but not cold enough to freeze or snow? Would saying the trees are magical be enough for willing suspension of disbelief?

10-29-2006, 07:17 PM
I grew up in Upstate New York and Vermont, so I have some great memories of sugaring season. Where I lived, people used tin buckets and metal spouts to collect sap. The buckets usually had a sort of metal tent-like cover over the spout and rim, so that stuff wouldn't fall into the sap.

We used to like to drink the sap, and would bring cups to dip into the buckets. Ice-cold, just faintly sweet, a clear, fresh taste.

That is, unless the boys had been peeing in the buckets. ;)

One year, as an experiment, we tapped the tree in our front yard, collecting the sap in a Shedd's peanut butter bucket, and boiled it down in a spaghetti pot on our electric stove. Yeah, expensive, but wonderful stuff. And the house smelled great for days.

We also used to visit sugaring houses, where the sap was boiled in long troughs over wood fires.

If you need first-hand info, I have friends in Massachusetts who run a maple syrup farm--here's their web page: http://http://www.berkshiresweetgold.com/