'Tis the season to think maple. Granted, this is not Vermont, it's Illinois. Nor is it autumn, it's winter. But our native Illinois maple trees are noteworthy, especially now, when the sap is rising and maple trees bring the promise of spring.
Seven species of maples occur naturally in Illinois, four of which are found in Kane County. Some are well-liked, some -- well, not so much. As a whole, maples have key ecological attributes. Maples are also a group of trees that has a great influence on human culture as well.
A taste of maple goodnessWant to learn more about maples and the process of making syrup? Check out these events.
March 2 and 3: The trees are the focus of Maple Sugaring Days, set for 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 2-3 at Johnson's Mound Forest Preserve, 41W600 Hughes Road, Elburn. There will be maple tapping demonstrations, and you can try your hand at drilling with an old-fashioned bit and brace. Watch sap simmer over an open fire, practice making spiles from sumac twigs, and of course, there will be maple syrup to taste. Naturalists with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County will lead hikes through the woods, interpreting the natural history of maple trees and the changing ecological landscape. Info: Call (847) 741-8350 or email email@example.com.
March 2, 3, 9, 10: McHenry County Conservation District's Festival of the Sugar Maples is held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. over two weekends -- Saturday and Sunday, March 2-3 and 9-10 at Coral Woods Conservation Area, 7400 Somerset, Marengo. Visitors can hear how maple syrup was made hundreds of years ago, discover how maple trees produce sap each spring, learn how sap is collected from the trees, and see how syrup is made at the evaporator house. Tours leave every 15 minutes and involve a half-mile hike over uneven terrain. Free. Info: mccdistrict.org.
March 11: Go beyond the typical maple syrup making demonstration and enjoy a sweet spring experience at McHenry County Conservation District's Maple Boil -- Making Syrup and Sugar from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, at Coral Woods Conservation Area. In this hands-on program for adults, participants will be actively involved in finishing a batch of maple syrup in the evaporator at Coral Woods. Participants will attempt to continue the process a step further to create maple cream and maple sugar candy. The registration deadline is Wednesday, March 6, and program fee of $5 for county residents and $6.25 for nonresidents must accompany registration. Registration is accepted online at MCCDistrict.org, and by mail or walk-in at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road in Crystal Lake, (815) 479-5779.
Maples all are in the genus, or group, called Acer. Each species of Acer is unique, and each has its place.
Silver maples and boxelders are known as soft maples and in the springtime produce samaras -- seeds that spin like helicopter blades.
The more popular species of the maple family are sugar and black maples, which are considered hard maples. These are blessed with the winning combination of attractive form, spectacular foliage, durable, hard wood and sugar-rich sap. The outward differences of sugar and black maple are subtle. A slight droop in the leaves, a bit of fuzziness on the buds, and a pinkish tint to the bark distinguish black from sugar maple. Both species grow to be medium- or large-sized trees, up to about 80 feet tall in our area (larger in New England). Their foliage puts on a spectacular display of yellow and orange-red in the fall.
And, like the other maples, they produce samaras. These whirligig fruits fly in autumn as opposed to the springtime fruits of the soft maples.
Ecologically, sugar and black maple are dominant trees along with species such as basswood. These co-dominants do well in areas of dense shade. Shade tolerance is an ecological attribute that allows saplings to bide their time in the understory of the forest, waiting for an opening in the forest canopy when one of their elders falls. When such an opportunity presents itself, a maple sapling can grow like the dickens and fill that space of sky in the treetops.
Another important ecological characteristic of maples is that they are very susceptible to fire damage and cannot compete with neighboring oak trees when flames creep through the dry woods. Thus, they are shade tolerant, but fire-intolerant.
Sugar and black maples are very valuable timber species, often lumped together as hardwoods without distinction by species. The wood is classified "superior" for ease in working. It's shock-resistant -- lending itself for use as baseball bats and butcher blocks. Hard maple makes magnificent flooring for gymnasiums and dance halls, holding up to the abuse of pounding of basketball shoes or high heels. Hard maple is also used in cabinetry and furniture making.
Hard maples grow unusual wavy grains. The patterns are unpredictable, making them very valuable for their unique beauty. The sinuous grains haven given rise to the terms "birds-eye," "tiger," "curly," or "fiddleback" maple. These grains give an elegant beauty to furniture. They are also favored in the art and industry of making musical instruments. For many years hard maple has been a premier wood for making violins and guitars.
Of course, a discourse on sugar maple would not be complete without mention of maple sugaring. Maple sugaring is a process, a ritual, and a celebration all in one. At the end of winter and the cusp of spring, when sunny days follow chilly nights and the snow melts on ground, maple sap starts "running." The sap flow is a feat of physics. Pressure from a combination of conditions inside the tree produces a force as much as 20 pounds per square inch. (Typical automobile tires are inflated at 32 pounds per square inch.) When conditions are right -- for example, a 40 degree, sunny day following a 30 degree night -- a tap in a maple tree will flow like a faucet with a fast-paced drip. With a bucket to catch the elixir, you can harvest as much as 10 to 20 gallons of sap from one tree.
And it will indeed take many gallons in order to produce syrup. While both sugar and black maple have a relatively high sugar content (about 2.5 percent), it takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to distill down to one gallon of syrup. It's no wonder that pure maple syrup is so expensive at the store.
Black maple and sugar maple are but two of the tree species that produce sweet sap. The soft maples, silver maple and boxelder, exude sweet sap as well. The sugar content in these species is less, however, and if you tap either of these trees, prepare for a long wait. It takes about 80 gallons of silver maple or boxelder sap to yield one gallon of syrup.
Maple sugaring is a long-standing tradition handed down from Native Americans to early settlers. After centuries of tapping maple trees, however, we may soon see this tradition fade away -- at least in the United States. A pattern of decline in maple trees is linked with the increase in mild winters over the past 20 years. Warmer temperatures, drought, and extreme weather events do not bode well for maples. These trees do not do well in hot weather, and we've had plenty of that in the past several summers. Foresters describe the maple situation as "dire."
Barrett Rock, professor of Natural Resources at the University of New Hampshire, warned in an article in The Foster Daily Democrat, "The maple is on the edge."
As maple trees decline in New England (and Illinois), the population of hard maples shifts its center to northward. In a New York Times article Rock noted, "In the '50s and '60s, 80 percent of world's maple syrup came from the U.S., and 20 percent came from Canada. Today it's exactly the opposite. The climate that we used to have here in New England has moved north to the point where it's now in Quebec." In Illinois, we see the shift toward Wisconsin.
Our maple trees here in Kane County are hanging on, and some are faring better than others. Several forest preserves still have impressive stands of mature maples -- Bliss Woods, Johnson's Mound, and Tekakwitha Woods are but a few. Trails through these maple forests are lovely at any time of year.
Whether its sugar, black, or silver, native maples are species to know and to enjoy. From the sweet sound of a violin to the sweet taste of syrup, maples greatly benefit our lives.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.