Across Ohio, maple trees are being tapped for a natural goodness that only Mother Nature could so perfectly provide. Turning tree sap to syrup has been around since the days when Native Americans roamed the woodlands of Ohio and other northern states. And just as they taught early colonists how to plant corn, these first Ohioans also shared their knowledge about maple syrup production.
Weve come a long way from those early sugaring methods, such as using hollowed-out logs to capture dripping sap. Today, in commercial sugaring, a maple grove resembles a giant network of IVs with rubber hoses running from tap holes to receiving tanks.
While methods have changed, the basic process for creating maple syrup has not: Tapping, collecting sap and boiling it to evaporate the water to produce a thick, sweet, amber-colored syrup.
Can you believe it takes 40 gallons of sap to make approximately one gallon of syrup! Thats because tree sap is 98 percent water. After going through the evaporation process, the saps sugar content increases, eventually turning it from sap to syrup.
While sap from other trees can be made into syrup, sap from the maple tree reigns supreme because of its high sugar content. Within the maple family the best tree for tapping is, appropriately, the sugar maple.
Ohios largest sugar maple grows in north-central Summit County. Its 173 inches around and 105 feet tall!
Maple trees are tapped in mid-to-late February when daytime temperatures go above freezing and nighttime temperature fall below freezing. These conditions create positive pressure within the wood, forcing sap to rise and begin circulating throughout the tree. Trees use sap to store and transport nutrients needed for growth and leaf production.
According to Lynn Boydelatour, a naturalist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, tapping does not harm the tree as long as its healthy and the number of taps is appropriate for the size of the tree.
Small holes are bored in the trunk just large enough to accommodate the small spout that directs the sap into a bucket or plastic tubing, Boydelatour said. The old taps heal over and new holes are drilled elsewhere in the tree the following spring. The ideal sugar maple reaches tap size around 40 years of age and could continue providing sap for up to 100 years.
Northeastern Ohio, where beech and maple forests are predominant, is best known for maple sugaring. West central Ohio is also good sugar country, especially in and around Hueston Woods State Park in Preble and Butler counties.
When sap starts flowing, its collected over a 4 to 6 week period, though that time can vary depending upon the weather. Once the trees begin to bud, the sugaring season is over. Buds reduce the amount of sugar in the sap, causing it to be bitter and unfit for maple syrup production.
In Ohio, about 800 producers bottle more than 100,000 gallons of maple syrup each year, said Tom Hoffman of the Ohio Maple Producers Association.
Hoffman said consumers should not to be fooled by grocery store imitations claiming to be maple syrup. Unless it says 100 percent maple syrup, youre simply pouring corn syrup with artificial coloring over your pancakes.
Vermont leads the nation in maple syrup production, followed by New York. Typically, Ohio ranks fourth behind Maine and ahead of Michigan and Wisconsin. The granddaddy of all maple syrup producers is, of course, Canada, which generates more than 2 million gallons each year.
Maple syrups economic impact is not just in the here-and-now. Did you know it also played a role in shaping our countrys future? Because of maple syrups abundance in the north, abolitionists before and during the Civil War could boycott cane sugar, which was produced in the south with slave labor.
If youre interested in learning more about the history and production of maple syrup, you might consider attending one of the several maple syrup festivals going on now around the state. For dates and locations call 1-800-BUCKEYE (282-5393).