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updated: 2/19/2011 3:13 PM

Tasting spring's maple sweetness

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  • A drop of pure maple sap hangs on a tap at the Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve in St. Charles.

      A drop of pure maple sap hangs on a tap at the Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve in St. Charles.
    John Starks/Daily Herald 2008

  • After a "Sugarin' Time" hike to teach visitors how to distinguish maples from other hardwood species, Kane County Naturalist Valerie Blaine drills a hole in an adult maple tree to put a tap in it to collect sap at the Maple sugaring event at Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve in St. Charles.

      After a "Sugarin' Time" hike to teach visitors how to distinguish maples from other hardwood species, Kane County Naturalist Valerie Blaine drills a hole in an adult maple tree to put a tap in it to collect sap at the Maple sugaring event at Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve in St. Charles.
    Laura Stoecker/Daily Herald 2007

 
By Valerie Blaine, Fox Valley Correspondent

Had enough of winter? Sweet springtime is on its way!

If you're skeptical, listen hard to the trees. You can almost hear the sap rising. We're about to embark on the passage from winter to spring.

The passage begins as the days grow longer and birds begin rehearsing their spring songs. Thousands of trees in our woodlands gear up, on cue, for a marathon of growth. Like ravenous teenagers in a sudden growth spurt, trees need a tremendous amount of food to fuel their growth.

Food for trees comes in the form of carbohydrates. The food was produced last summer in the green leaves that made up the canopy of the forest and stored throughout the winter along the length of the tree. Come spring, the carbs -- in the form of plant sugars -- are mobilized for movement in sap.

In an astonishing feat of physics, trees start pumping sugar-rich sap "uphill" to the treetops in late February. This defiance of gravity is made possible by a combination of gas and osmotic pressure reaching up to 40 pounds per square inch. Sap courses through tubes (technically, xylem and phloem) inside the tree. The sap fuels the big spring growth spurt when leaves unfurl and flower buds burst.

Exactly how and when people discovered that this botanical process in maple trees yields something we humans can savor is a matter of conjecture. Sugar maples are unique to North America, and we can be certain that indigenous peoples living in the eastern forests learned to tap maple trees by happenstance and experimentation.

The earliest collecting methods involved making an incision in the bark of a large maple tree and inserting a hollowed-out plant stem to direct the flow of sap to a container. Before obtaining metal utensils, Native Americans used containers made of animal hides or hollowed-out logs to hold the tree's liquid.

But the clear sap was thin and contained only a trace of sweetness. (Later analysis would reveal that sugar maple sap is only about 3 percent sugar.) The sap had to be heated in order to evaporate the water. Without metal pots or pails to boil liquid in, people accomplished the task by placing hot rocks in the sap repeatedly until only thick, sweet syrup remained. Spilled accidentally on the snow, drops of syrup froze into maple sugar candy.

When Europeans arrived Native Americans passed along their knowledge of the delectable elixir. Maple sugaring quickly caught on and became established as a late winter/early spring harvest in the eastern forests of the young United States of America.

Maple sugaring was certainly motivated by the collective sweet tooth of a growing nation, but it was also politically driven over the years. During the early colonial times, maple sugar was an alternative to British controlled cane sugar industry. Thomas Jefferson encouraged the use of maple sugar as an act of independence from the heavy-handed Brits.

Later, maple sugar was promoted by abolitionists who boycotted sugar cane plantations for their brutal use of slaves. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, homemade maple syrup saved many a family money at the grocer's.

In the wartime years that followed the Depression, cane sugar was increasingly rare as almost all ships were diverted to the war effort overseas. The scarcity of refined cane sugar thus led to increased demand for maple sugar products during World War II.

New England, Canada, and the northern woods of Wisconsin and Michigan are big time producers of maple sugar products. Although Illinois is better known for its extensive prairie, there were groves of hardwood trees along the rivers, with a fair number of maples among them. Many farmers had a "sugarbush," or a woodlot dominated by sugar maple trees. The town of Sugar Grove owes its name to the Native American sugar camp discovered by white newcomers.

Sugaring was, and still is, a laborious process. It's a job that cannot be rushed. Trudging through snowy woods to set the taps, hauling full buckets, stoking the fire day and night, and finally bottling the end product, takes time and energy.

Why bother, you might ask, if you can go to the grocery store and buy artificial maple syrup any time of year? St. Charles Park District program manager Pam Otto is a naturalist with a nutritionist background. She's a strong proponent of the value of pure, unadulterated maple syrup.

"Nutritionally speaking," she explains, "both (pure and artificial syrup) are essentially simple carbohydrates, and sugar is sugar; whether it's produced by a corn plant or a maple plant, the body processes it pretty much the same way.

"However, corn syrup -- the foundation for the wannabes -- tends to be more highly concentrated, and thus carries a somewhat higher per-serving calorie content than pure maple syrup.

"Aesthetically speaking," Otto continues, "there is no comparison. Pure maple syrup derives a lot of its unique flavor characteristics from the reactions that occur during boiling. You just can't replicate that with corn syrup -- which is refined using acids or enzymes -- and maple flavoring."

The value of maple sugaring extends beyond nutrition, plant physiology, and politics. Benjamin Rush, an 18th century physician in Philadelphia, argued that it plays a role in the human quest for happiness and fulfillment.

Rush penned these words to Thomas Jefferson: "In contemplating the present opening prospects in human affairs, I am led to expect that a material part of the general happiness which heaven seems to have prepared for mankind, will be derived from the manufacture and general use of Maple Sugar."

Experience the miracle this spring. And please pass the syrup.


Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com

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