When we’re diving into a delicious Belgian waffle or a plate of pancakes, the last thing most of us are thinking about is maple syrup trees. In fact, our culture has made many of us intellectually disconnected from the sources of the foods we consume. Learning more about where our food comes from can have a huge impact on how we view what we’re eating. And those feelings can range from added enjoyment to downright horror, depending on the food. Fortunately, when it comes to good ol’ maple syrup, it’s a feel-good story.
History of Maple Syrup
Money doesn’t grow on trees, but Indigenous Peoples of North America discovered that sweet liquid gold grows within them. It’s unknown when Native Americans started tapping trees for syrup. However, they were by the 15th century because syrup was used in trade with Europeans explorers.
The Legend of How Syrup Was Discovered
Native Americans have a number of stories about how they first discovered maple syrup. One story tells of a chief who threw his tomahawk at a tree. When the tree started to drip with sap, the chief’s wife collected it and used it for cooking. The chief called the golden liquid Sinzibuckwud, which literally means “drawn from trees.” And this term is still used by Native Americans today to describe maple syrup.
Does tapping a tree for syrup hurt the tree?
A common question that many people ask is whether tapping a tree for syrup harms the tree. The answer is – it depends. Like harvesting cork bark from a cork tree, tapping a maple or other tree for its sap won’t harm the tree if done correctly.
In general, you can tap trees for syrup once the tree it at least 10 inches in diameter at the level of about 4 feet from the ground. If the tree has not reached this size and level of maturity, you can harm or even kill the tree by tapping it.
Drilling a tap into the tree does do some damage, but if the tree is mature, it won’t cause irreparable harm. Experts suggest just one tap in the tree will yield the most syrup. Furthermore, tapping should be done when the temperature stays consistently below freezing (32 F) at night and above freezing during the day. These are the ideal conditions for the sap to flow. Tapping the tree at the wrong time can cause the hole to close up, which means you’ll have to re-tap the tree, which can also be harmful to the tree. Thus, maple syrup can be a sustainable food source if done correctly. In fact, some trees are tapped for syrup for more than 60 years.
The Best Trees for Syrup
You can tap any deciduous tree for syrup. Essentially, those are the kinds of trees with big leaves that fall off; unlike evergreen pine trees with pine needles. However, maple trees produce a lot more of the good stuff on their sap – i.e. sugar. Here are some of best sweet syrup producers on the planet:
1. Sugar Maple Tree (Acer Saccharum)
The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is a flowering tree in the Sapindaceae family. Also known as “rock maple” or “hard maple,” the sugar maple tree is used often to make furniture but is more commonly used in maple syrup production. In fact, the sugar maple is No. 1 when it comes to producing aptly named maple syrup because its syrup is 2-3% sugar, which is higher than other trees.
Sugar maples can yield up to 25 gallons (94 liters) of sap in one tapping season. Yet, it takes 40-50 gallons (151 – 189 liters) of sap to product one gallon of syrup.
The sugar maple is sometimes referred to a “sharp maple” because of its triangular shaped five-lobed leaves that have pointed tips.
Native to the south-eastern Canada and the north-eastern United States, sugar maples can live for up to 300 years. However, they only produce sap for about 100 years. These trees can range in height from 49 ft (15 m) to 115 ft. (35 m). In addition to providing syrup for waffle-eating people, sugar maples also provide vital habitat and shelter to caterpillars and other insects, squirrels, white-tailed deer, woodpeckers, cardinals, warblers, and other wildlife.
2. Black Maple (Acer Nigrum)
Some syrup makers consider black maples (Acer nigrum) and sugar maples to be the same tree. However, black maples are now seen as a sub-species of the sugar maple. They’re native to the Great Lakes region of the U.S. Black maple thrive in the moist soil of this part of the U.S., and they’re a little more sensitive to pollution and dry weather conditions than other maples.
Black maples can be distinguished from sugar maples by the shapes of their leaves. A sugar maple has five-lobed leaves while the black maple has three-lobed leaves as well as thicker petioles (the stalk that joins the leaf to its stem.) In addition, as their name implies, black maples have darker bark. Black maples tend to be a little shorter than sugar maples, reaching heights of up to about 80 ft. (24 m).
Black maple produces about the same amount of sap as the sugar maple and the taste of the syrup is very similar with sugar content from 1.1 to 1.5 %.
They provide habitat to a host of insects, including caterpillars, moths, wood-boring beetles, and more. In addition, they provide habitat to a number of birds, including the yellow-bellied sapsucker, owls, eastern chipmunks, southern flying squirrels, meadow voles, the white-footed mouse, deer, and newly reintroduced elk.
3. Red Maple (Acer Rubrum)
The red maple (Acer rubrum) has a wide range in North America, from south-eastern Manitoba all the way to Texas, as well as to the eastern seaboard. The red maple is one of the most common maples and deciduous trees found in this region, However, it is not the biggest producer of maple syrup.
In addition to tapping them for syrup, Native Americans used red maples in traditional medicine. The bark was used in washes and teas to treat cataracts, hives, muscle aches, coughs, and to even stop diarrhea.
The red maple has a shorter harvesting season because its buds emerge earlier in the springtime, which is not the ideal time to tap a tree for sap. Red maples also have a slightly shorter lifespan than other maples, averaging around 100 years of age. Like other maples, red maples are hearty trees, able to withstand floods and extreme heat and cold. However, with thinner bark, they can be more susceptible to fungi and disease.
4. Silver Maple (Acer Saccharinum)
The silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is a hardy, fast-growing maple tree with a range from south-eastern Canada all the way to Florida. Its natural habitat is along creeks and waterways. However, because of its hardiness and the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to buy, the silver maple is commonly planted in urban areas. But because it grows so fast, reaching heights of 116 ft. (35 m), it needs constant pruning, which has made some municipalities ban it altogether
The tree gets its name from the silvery underside of its leaves. Wind blowing through the leaves creates a beautiful shimmery silver-green effect.
The silver maple goes by a variety of other names, including creek maple, soft maple, water maple, swamp maple, and white maple.
This maple isn’t used much for mass-market syrup because its sap has a lower sugar content than other maples and it produces a slightly thinner syrup. However, homesteaders and other DIYers can definitely tap this tree for syrup.
5. Boxelder or Manitoba Maple (Acer Negundo)
The boxelder (Acer negundo), or Manitoba maple is also native to North America. However, unlike the sugar and black maples, the boxelder is a short-lived tree, living for only about 60 years.
Historically, the boxelder had a huge range, from Manitoba west to southern Alberta, and in the U.S., from the Atlantic west to the Rockies and south to the Gulf of Mexico. And there were even pockets in California, Nevada, and New Mexico. After WWII in the U.S. these maples were planted heavily by housing developers who thought they would offer desirable shade cover and character to neighborhoods.
Boxelders also a relatively small maples, reaching to about 80 ft. (24 m.) They also produce less syrup: 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of syrup for every 60 gallons (227 liters) of sap. Though they produce plenty of sugar, they syrup they produce has a slightly different taste than traditional maple syrup, so syrup aficionados are known to mix box elder syrup with sugar, red, or black maple syrup to refine the flavor.
6. Bigleaf Maple (Acer Macrophyllum)
Bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum), also referred to as Oregon maples, are native to the North American Pacific coast, with a range from the western coast of Canada to southern California.
As their name implies, bigleaf maples have the largest leaves of any maple tree, measuring up 12 in. (30 cm) across. Bigleaf maples also have a long lifespan – living for up to 300 years. However, because they have relatively thin bark, bigleaf maples are especially vulnerable to fires, which have been increasing as a result of climate change.
These trees are more known to produce syrup in the colder portions of their habitat, as the temperature needs to be below freezing at night and around 40 degrees F during the day. Because of their low sugar content, it takes about 100 gallons (378 liters of sap to yield 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of syrup.
Bigleaf maples have been used for other purposes beside syrup for centuries. Native Americans used the bark to make rope and the large leaves were used to make containers. In addition, they carved to wood to make paddles and dishes. Today, bigleaf maple woods is used to make furniture, veneers, and musical instruments.
Like other maple trees, bigleaf maples also provide important habitat for insects, birds, squirrels, deer, and other fauna.
7. Norway Maple (Acer Platanoides)
Native to Norway and Sweden, the Norway maple (Acer platanoides) was introduced to North America in the 18th century. The Norway maple has a higher tolerance to pollution and poor soil than other maples, so it’s commonly planted in urban areas.
Commonly confused with the sugar maple, the Norway maple produces syrup that is very similar to the sugar maple.
8. Black Walnut Tree (Juglans Nigra)
A tree that over-deliveries, the black walnut (Juglans nigra) can tapped for syrup as well as nuts. Native to North America, the black walnut has a natural lifespan of 250 years.
With a natural range from Canada to northern Florida and west to the Great Plains, black walnuts are now one of the rarest hardwoods found in North America. They also provide valuable habit and help to support ecosystems on which a host of insects, bird, and animals rely, including Banded hairstreak butterflies, red-shouldered hawks, squirrels, foxes, and others.
The syrup made from the black walnut tree has its own unique flavor, which is slightly reminiscent of – you guessed it – walnuts. Due to its bitter taste, black walnut syrup is often mixed with other sugars to enhance its flavor.
9. Birch Trees
While they are not the first trees you think of when it comes to “maple” syrup, birch trees (genus Betula) produce syrup that is commercially available around the world. While the yield is slightly lower than with maple trees, birch trees do produce a tasty syrup.
Known for their white bark, birch trees are also cultivated as decorative trees in landscaping. However, birches that are native to a specific area tend to do the best.
A number of other trees can also produce syrup, including alders, sycamores, linden trees, ironwood trees, and hickory trees. And if want to learn how to tap a tree for syrup, remember that the season generally starts in mid-February and lasts until mid-March.
If you’d like to see tree-tapping in action, check out this video from the University of Maine: