What would you expect to see on a tour of a maple syrup farm? There’s actually a lot more to growing healthy maple trees than meets the eye. Hundreds of years ago the indigenous people in North America taught the European settlers how to collect sap to make syrup and sugar from several species of trees. One popular legend describes venison being boiled in maple sap as a popular dish amongst Indigenous peoples and settlers alike. Today Canada produces more than 80 percent of the maple syrup in the entire world. Sugar maples, red maples, and black maples yield the sweetest sap.
On your tour of the farm you’ll see that the actively producing maple trees have a trunk diameter of at least one foot, meaning that they’re 40 years old or more. Although maples tolerate shade, they photosynthesize more sugars to store over the winter in their roots if allowed to spread their branches widely so more leaf surface is exposed to sunlight.
You might think that more trees equal more syrup, but the most economical set-up gives each tree ample space so it can absorb soil nutrients, groundwater, and sunlight. Over winter, healthy maple trees without drought stress, disease, or pests will store a higher xylem sap volume and sugar concentration. The xylem is part of the tree’s circulation, a system of tubules and specialized tissue under the bark. You can learn more interesting facts about the lives of trees, as well as professional tree care tips, by visiting a local certified arborist – also known as trees doctors.
This brings us to the next point of interest on our tour. Xylem sap is usually tapped when winter begins to transition into spring, ideally when a nightly freeze is followed by a daily thaw for several weeks. The temperature fluctuations actually pump the sap stored in the roots upward toward the bare branches, creating the perfect moment to channel the delicious syrup.Less than ten percent of an individual tree’s xylem sap is collected each season and trees often produce for over a century. Modern tapping methods prevent backflow and the possibility of bacterial contamination. When cared for properly, the tap hole naturally heals itself.The sap is conveyed to the “sugar shack” for boiling, filtering, and grading. The syrup is then packaged on-site while still hot.
Experience and technical knowledge are involved in any successful farm. Tree specialists, called arborists, certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, provide consultations on local climate and soil conditions, tree planting, diseases and pests, pruning, tree removal, and stump grinding. They can also perform safety checks to recommend the removal of dangerous “widow-maker” branches and other high-risk situations before accidents happen.
The existence of maple syrup is just another example of the majesty of nature, and a reminder that our environment can provide for us naturally if we understand how to work with it, rather than against it. If you happen to live in Canada, or the northern United States, plan a family outing to a maple syrup farm this winter.