It’s almost that time of year again- not Valentine’s Day- maple sugaring time. Back in New England where I grew up, tapping the sugar maples and letting the syrup drip into pails to be later boiled into syrup was an event that didn’t get underway until March. Here in the Mid-Atlantic region, maple sugaring often starts in February and is finished by mid-March. So few the trees, so absent the fanfare, the maple sugaring season slips by unnoticed here. It takes some serious searching to find a grove that invites visitors to watch the sugaring magic.
Fortunately, Meadowside Nature Center, 5100 Meadowside Lane, Rockville, MD, 20855, Tel. 301-924-4141 offers an educational program allowing visitors to follow the stages of the maple sugaring process. They learn about when and how the trees are tapped and see the metal shafts that guide the tree sap to drip into a bucket. They can watch the boiling down process that nets maple syrup. And then the best part of all- the taste test!
This maple sugaring program is available for only three weeks during late February and early March when the sap is running. Exact dates are hard to pinpoint in advance, especially this year with the warmer winter weather. A good cold snap is needed to get that sap running. And a warm spell can stop it in its tracks. But you can call the Center for information- the latest prediction is that the maple sugaring process will get underway toward the end of February. The cost to participate in the program is $5.
Brookside Nature Center, 1400 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton Regional Park, Wheaton, Maryland 20902, Tel. 301-946-9071 offers its maple sugaring program in February. This year’s dates are February 6-23, 2007. The cost is $5. Naturalists focus on the science of maple sugaring beginning with photosynthesis and ending with a taste test.
Out in Western Maryland, 65 miles away but still a doable day trip from metropolitan Washington, D.C., Cunningham Falls State Park, 14039 Catoctin Hollow Rd. Thurmont, MD 21788, Tel. 301-271-7574, www.dnr.maryland.gov, hosts maple syrup making demonstrations. These demonstrations take place on four dates this year: March 12, 13, 19 and 20 from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. The demonstrations are in the William Houck area of the park. Follow the signs from the park entrance. The cost is $2 per person, or $1 per person for youth groups, and includes entertainment. After exploring the history and process of maple syrup making, listen to a live performance by a bluegrass band. There are also special activities for children.
How did maple syrup production get started in the North America? The European settlers brought tree tapping skills with them, but the Native Americans were a step ahead. They had been tapping maple trees for their sap to make syrup, and the more concentrated form maple sugar ,as early as 1609, quite likely earlier. The maple sugar was used as a sweetener in place of cane sugar. As early as 1788, the Quakers were promoting the production and use of maple sugar to protest the use of slave labor by the West Indians, who were the source of much of this country’s imported cane sugar.
Have you ever heard of a “sapsicle”? When a maple twig snaps in cold weather, sometimes sap will run out and then freeze. The result is a flavorful ice on the branch. It is possible that the Native Americans first discovered this ice and then devised a method of obtaining sap from the trees.
Trees have to mature before they can safely be tapped for their sap. Usually, a tree is 30 years old and ten inches in diameter before it is tapped. For multiple taps to be used in the same tree, the tree must be larger. While a single tap produces about 10 gallons of sap, that sap, once boiled down, creates only a quart of syrup, even less maple sugar.
If watching maple syrup being made gives you ideas about your own maple trees’ possibilities, you might try making some maple syrup at home. Directions for tapping trees and making small batches of syrup can be found online at several sites including www.mi-maplesyrup.com/Activities/activities_homemade.htm, and www.mi-maplesyrup.com/Activities/activities_homemade.htm. No maple trees? Birch and elm trees also produce sap that can be used in syrup making, but the syrup won’t be as sweet.
And finally, for maple afficianados who don’t want to travel out in the cold to see maple syrup production underway or deal with the mess of making their own sticky amber liquid, there’s always the option of leasing your own maple tree. For $59.95, Rent Mother Nature, www.rentmothernature.com, will lease you a tree, and sent you an official lease. They do all the harvesting work, sending you newsletter updates on “your” tree’s progress; you collect the sweet bounty. The lease entitles you to all the syrup produced by “your” tree. In case it’s a poor season, there’s even a minimum guarantee- 50 oz. of syrup. The syrup arrives at your door in attractive jugs.