February is in full swing, and that means it’s Maple Sugaring season at the Delaware Nature Society. This is the time we have a number of families, school students, and even Young Naturalists that come to Ashland Nature Center to learn about the exciting process of turning maple sap into maple syrup!
Have you ever wondered where the syrup you put on your pancakes comes from? You need maple trees and the right weather that allows sap to flow. Sap only flows during freeze-thaw cycles, when overnight temperatures dip below freezing and the days are sunny and warm, with temperatures between 40-50 degrees.
So what exactly is sap and how does it flow? Sap is actually sugar water. Most people (myself included until I taught this program) thought all sap was very thick and sticky like syrup. While some tree sap does have a thick consistency, like pine sap, maple sap is 97% water. How is that possible? Trees make sugar in their leaves during the summer and then store it in their roots in the fall. During warmer winter days, the roots begin to thaw and water moves from the soil into the roots and flows up the tree through “pipes” called xylem vessels. As the water moves through these “pipes” it picks up the sap as it moves upwards.
So how do we extract the sap from the tree? The first step to making maple syrup is tapping the maple tree. You must drill a upward-angled hole about 1 1/2 inches deep into the tree, just enough to tap into the xylem “pipes”.
A metal spile is then inserted into the hole in the tree and the sap flows out of the spile on warm and sunny winter days. We always taste the sap as it’s flowing out of the tree!
We collect the sap in big blue bags. Every couple of days we collect the sap and then use it for our programs.
Now, the sap that we collect directly from the tree is not what we put on our pancakes. If we did that, our pancakes would be really soggy and taste pretty awful. The sap must be boiled so the water evaporates and the sugar is concentrated. We boil just enough to let everyone in the program sample the syrup because it takes a very long time. We would need to boil 40-60 gallons of sap to make enough maple syrup to put on our pancakes!
Phew! After all that work we finally made maple syrup, but I haven’t even told you the best part! The best part about the maple sugaring season is eating a lot of pancakes! After we spend some time outside learning about the process of maple sugaring, we head back into the nature center to make some breakfast. It’s fun comparing the tastes of the maple syrup to the pancake syrup (like Mrs. Butterworths or Aunt Jemima). Those syrups are made from corn syrup. Next time you eat pancakes, try to compare the two different syrups. You will definitely taste the difference!