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posted: 3/5/2014 1:00 PM

Maple sugaring heralds spring's arrival

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  • After a hike to teach visitors how to distinguish maples from other hardwood species, naturalist Valerie Blaine drills a hole in an adult maple tree to put a tap in it to collect sap during a maple sugaring demonstration in St. Charles. The Forest Preserve District of Kane County will hold its annual Maple Sugaring Days Saturday and Sunday, March 15-16.

       After a hike to teach visitors how to distinguish maples from other hardwood species, naturalist Valerie Blaine drills a hole in an adult maple tree to put a tap in it to collect sap during a maple sugaring demonstration in St. Charles. The Forest Preserve District of Kane County will hold its annual Maple Sugaring Days Saturday and Sunday, March 15-16.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer, 2007

  • Sap drips from a metal spire in a sugar maple tree at a maple-sugaring demonstration at Johnson's Mound in Elburn.

       Sap drips from a metal spire in a sugar maple tree at a maple-sugaring demonstration at Johnson's Mound in Elburn.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2012

  • Children get a chance to try the types of drills used to tap maple trees at a previous Maple Sugaring Days event.

       Children get a chance to try the types of drills used to tap maple trees at a previous Maple Sugaring Days event.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer, 2007

 

The best things in life are worth waiting for. Spring, for example. The initiation of spring for many folks is maple sugaring. Both spring and maple sugaring are a long time coming this year. But they are coming.

Maple sugaring has heralded the arrival of spring for centuries. In our neck of the woods, maple sugaring usually begins in late February to early March. This year -- no surprise -- we have to wait a few more weeks. The trees, like everything else, are frozen solid.

Maple sugaring is an art, a science, and a seasonal rite of passage from winter to spring. More specifically, "sugaring" is the process of tapping maple trees to collect sap for making syrup. Sap is the liquid food of the tree, consisting of plant sugars produced by last year's leaves. The sap has been stored all winter in the plumbing (technically, special tubes called xylem) inside the tree.

Long ago people discovered that the sap was sweet, and that it could be simmered down to make delectable syrup.

Exactly how and when people learned how to get syrup from the sap is a matter of conjecture. From journals kept by early North American explorers, we know that the Native Americans were making maple sugar as early as 1609. It's likely that indigenous people developed the process after first tasting "sapsicles," the icicles of frozen maple sap that can form on the end of broken twigs during the winter. Right out of the tree, the sap is only slightly sweet to the taste. Somewhere along the line, perhaps by accident, people learned that heating the sap evaporates the water and leaves a sweet, dark, syrup. (Much later the sugar content of sap was measured, and it was determined that maple sap is 97-98 percent water and about 2 to 3 percent sugar.)

The first collecting methods involved making a cut in the bark of a large maple tree and inserting a hollowed-out twig or branch to direct the flow of sap into a container. Early on, containers made of bark, animal hides or hollowed-out logs were used to collect the tree's liquid.

How could sap be heated in bark containers? There's considerable debate about this topic. Many people say that in the days before metal pots, native people heated stones on the fire, and repeatedly put hot stones into the sap-filled bark or log containers. A far cry from zapping a bowl of liquid in the microwave. Nevertheless, a method was developed to evaporate the water, leaving a thick liquid. If further heated, the syrup would crystallize. Another method of processing sap was to let it freeze and then skim off the ice that would form on top. Maple sugar, a solid, was easier to store than liquid syrup.

Europeans who arrived in the New World learned the art of maple sugaring from the Native Americans. They introduced new technology to the process, most notably the use of metal tools. With an auger to drill holes in the maple trunks, they inserted hollow pegs called spiles to direct the flow of sap. Metal spiles replaced the bored-out twigs that had previously been used. Metal buckets took the place of bark and hide containers, and kettles were used instead of hollow logs. Horse-drawn wagons hauled large volumes of sap to boiling stations. Sap was heated in a series of iron kettles hung over an open fire. As the sap thickened, it was transferred from one kettle to another. It reached a syrupy consistency in the final kettle.

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

"Every farmer should have a sugar orchard as well as an apple orchard," Jefferson declared.

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, people used homemade maple syrup in place of store-bought sugar. 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.

In large sugaring operations today, sap is collected in plastic bags that hang under plastic spiles. The sap flows through a network of tubing that interconnects a large number of maple trees.

Modern boiling methods involve high-tech evaporators, complete with valves and gauges to monitor and control the distillation process. The end result? The same pure maple syrup that Native Americans savored centuries ago.

As technologically advanced as we are, we still can't hurry the process of maple sugaring. We can't hurry it any more than we can hurry the arrival of spring. Maple sugaring is a labor of love, the slow food of all slow foods, and the reward comes to those who are patient. Greek historian Xenophon, light years away from a sugar maple tree, wrote "Nature supplies good things in abundance," he said, "but she suffers them not to be won without toil."

We live in an on-demand, fast-food world. We want spring, and we want it now. But spring will come when it's ready to come, and we must wait. Just think how sweet spring will be this year.

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. Contact her with questions or comments at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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