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Plant Profile: SUGAR MAPLE

(Acer saccharum)

Sugar Maple



There are almost two hundred different Acer species worldwide and about one hundred distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, most of them indigenous to central and eastern Asia. Some are also indigenous to Europe and the Mediterranean. About 13 different species are indigenous to North America, including the Sugar Maple. Its distribution ranges from southern Canada down to Arkansas, Tennessee and the southern Appalachian Mountains. It is the dominant and most prominent tree of the eastern forests, most notable in the autumn when its leaves turn to brilliant red, orange and yellow. The striking coloration is due to the breakdown and dispersal of chlorophyll, which reveals other pigments such as carotenes, tannins and anthocyanins, which react differently depending on the pH level of the soil. Sugar Maple is a stately tree that can reach a height of up to 130 feet. It grows relatively slow though. A mature tree can reach an age of about 200 years. In the southern range of its distribution it associates with Oaks. In the northern and northeastern ranges it grows among birch and beech woods.


tapping Maple treesThe distinctive leaf has gained world fame as the national emblem of the Canadian flag and Maple has also been elected as the state tree of several US states. Sugar Maple is one of the most valuable hardwood trees of the northeastern forests of the US. Its wood has a fine grain and is lighter, yet stronger than that of White Oak, which makes it useful for the manufacture of many household implements such as rolling pins, cutting boards, ladles and spoons. Carpenters, wood turners and instrument makers especially value its beautiful close grain. As a durable hardwood, it also found uses as a building material for floorboards, skirting-boards etc. But Sugar Maples most important economic role is of course not the value of its timber but the yield of its sweet tasting sap, which rises abundantly in the early spring. Indians first taught the European settlers about this sap and the technique for tapping it as they had been using it as one of their most important food sources since time immemorial.

Maple sap contains about 3% of sugar (on average). To obtain a strong flavoured syrup takes around 30 -40 gallons of sap which is reduced to one gallon of maple syrup with an ideal density of 66. 5%. At higher concentrations the syrup is likely to crystallize, in lower concentrations it can go off. An average tree yields about 12 gallons of sap, which can be turned into 3 pounds of sugar per season. Large trees (at least 25 - 30 inches in diameter) can sustain 2 or 3 taps. Younger trees with a diameter of 10-12 inches (at about 65 years of age) only sustain one tap.

sugaring lodgesThe Native Americans had semi-permanent sugar camps set up in the forests, to which they traveled for the annual sugar making season (from about mid March to mid April). These usually consisted of two structures, one small birch bark covered lodge where utensils were stored, and the sugar making lodge, which also served as a temporary living space. The sugar-making lodge was freshly repaired and prepared each year. It usually had one or two platforms along the inside walls, while the middle was kept as the cooking space.

Each camp harvested between 900 - 1500 taps. Taps were made by making a diagonal 4" incision into the tree about 3 ft above the ground. Perpendicular to the cut the bark was removed for another 4" and a wooden spout, usually made from Slippery Elm about 6" long and 2" wide was inserted below. A container made from birch bark was placed underneath the spout. When full the contents were poured into a larger pot which was slowly heated at the edge of the fire. The process of heating was carried out with great care to avoid too much frothing and bubbling. The fire kept going all night and people took turns in watching over the process, cooling it and reheating the syrup and all the while stirring it with maple wood ladles. When it reached the right consistency it was strained through a basswood mat, or through a well-worn linen cloth. For the final sugaring off all the equipment was carefully cleaned and scoured. The syrup was again reheated and some bear fat or deer tallow was added to it to make the sugar softer and less brittle. As the mass was getting increasingly dense the process of stirring it with a maple wood paddle was getting harder. When it reached just the right consistency it was rapidly crushed with special ladles or by hand in order to pulverize the sugar before it cooled down too much and became too solid.

boiling the sapSome of the thick syrup was also used to make special delicacies by pouring it into fancy shapes, which solidified as they cooled down. Another special treat was known as gum-sugar, which in modern language is also known as maple taffy. To make this sticky stuff the syrup was poured onto snow where it would harden and then be scooped into little packets of birch bark, or nowadays, poured onto vanilla ice cream, allowed to harden and picked up with a spoon or stick to be eaten like lollipops. The settlers added their own inventions to the inventory of Maple products. They made a thick spread, known as maple butter, maple vinegar (which by all accounts appears not to have been too tasty, but said to improve with addition of whiskey), maple beer and maple punch.

Before there were metal kettles, pots and pans the Indians used birch bark containers and vats made from moose skins. To heat the syrup they would place red hot stones into these containers with the syrup and then cool the liquid off in the snow, simply discarding the sheet of ice which would form on top.

The flavor and abundance of sap is very much dependent on environmental factors, such as weather conditions and pH level of the soil. Little snow and deep frost during the early part of winter, followed by heavy snow, was thought to produce the best harvest. Rain changes the flavor of the sugar and thunderstorms were thought to ruin it. The settlers soon learned and adopted the technique which essentially is still carried out in more or less the same manner, except for some small modifications which have somewhat simplified the process. For the Indians and some of the small family producers 'sugaring off' was not just the harvest of a commercial crop, but an integral and important part of the annual cycle, a joyous and festive event and herald of the impending spring.

Maple sugar is still thought to be a delicacy and enormous amounts of it are tapped for local as well as for international consumption. Vermont is the largest producer in the US today (500 000 gallons annually), followed by New York and Ohio. However, Canada is the largest producer worldwide, covering about 75% of the international demand. Other species of Maple also contain sweet sap and can be used for obtaining syrup, though Sugar Maple is by far the most prolific. In contrast to white sugar, maple syrup and maple sugar are highly nutritious.

Composition of Pure Maple Syrup:

Carbohydrates (%): Minerals (PPM) Organic acids (%) Amino Acids (PPM) Vitamins (micrograms/liter)
  • Sucrose 62.65
  • Hexose (glucose, fructose) 0.5 - 3
  • Other trace sugars
  • Potassium 1500-2200
  • Calcium 400-1000
  • Magnesium 100-300
  • Phosphorus 50-125
  • Manganese 5-80
  • Zinc 5-50
  • Sodium 1-25
  • Iron 1-15
  • Tin 0-25
  • Copper 0-2
  • Malic 0.090
  • Citric 0.009
  • Succinic 0.007
  • Fumaric 0.004
  • Phenols 300-960
  • Amino nitrogens 30-190
  • Niacin (PP) 276
  • Pantothenic Acid (B5) 600
  • Riboflavin (B2) 60
  • Folic Acid Traces
  • Pyridoxine Traces
  • Biotin Traces
  • Vitamin A Traces

Native Americans also used various parts of Sugar Maple for medicinal purposes, though these uses are no longer common. The Iroquois especially employed various parts medicinally as parts of compound medicines to purify the blood, or externally to treat sore eyes and blindness as well as for a skin condition referred to as "Italian itch." It was also used to treat shortness of breath and as a pulmonary and expectorant cough medicine. The dried and ground inner bark was sometimes used as flour and the rotten wood could be used to yield a purple dye. The latter was hard to come by though, as the wood is rather rot resistant.

The settlers on the other hand soon found it less work intensive and more profitable to turn their stands of Maple trees into ash by burning them to the ground in order to obtain economically valuable potash. Maple yields a relatively large amount of ash (4% compared to only 1% of Douglas Fir). The potash was a valued raw material destined for export to England were it was used extensively by the textile industry, as a raw material for the production of soap. It was also essential for making glass and gunpowder. In 1751, Britain even passed an act in Parliament 'for encouraging the making of Pott Ashes and Pearl Ashes in the British Plantations in America'. An acre of forest could be reduced to 2 tons of saleable potash - at a certain profit for the farmers, and sometimes their only significant source of income: in 1800 a ton of potash demanded a price of $200 - $300. Eventually Thomas Jefferson stopped all legal export of any goods including Potash as a reprisal against the search and seizure of American ships by France and Britain - however, illegal export (i.e. smuggling) became even more lucrative.

These days, environmental factors are the main threat to the Maple population. Growth of mature trees is decreasing and 'infant mortality' among saplings is increasing, apparently due to acid rain. Because of their extensive shallow root systems Maple trees are especially susceptible to surface soil pollution.


Maple Gingerbread

Sift together flour, soda, ginger and salt. Set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the egg vigorously, and then stir in maple syrup, sour cream and butter. Mix cream and butter. Mix in the flour combination and pour into a greased flat pan. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 or until cake pulls away from the sides of the pan. Maple frosting is a tasty option.

Elderflower Fritters with Maple Syrup

Stir milk and eggs into dry ingredients. Dip Elderflower heads into the batter and deep fry until crisp. Serve with maple syrup and lemon juice.

Maple Wine

From "Valuable Secrets", 1809
"Boil 4, 5, or 6 gallons of sap according to its strength into one and add yeast according to the quantity you make. After it is fermented, set it aside in a cool place well stopped. If kept for two years, it will become a pleasant and round wine."

Baked Ham from the Smokehouse

Take one smoked ham. Soak overnight in cold water. Wash and remove all mold. Place ham in a large container with lid and fill ¾ full with water. Boil hard for ½ hour, reduce heat and cook slowly 4-5 hours, turning every 2 hours. Remove the outer skin from ham, leaving layer of fat. Coat with mixture of Maple Syrup, cinnamon, sweet cider and cider vinegar. Sprinkle with fresh breadcrumbs. Score and dot with cloves. Brown in oven for 30 minutes.

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