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Maple Sugaring

From the Audubon Society of Rhode Island

Did you know your maple syrup comes from a tree?  To be specific, it comes from a Sugar Maple tree.  Now is the time of year to check out how the sap from a tree is transformed into that sweet syrup you put on your pancakes.

Audubon-Maple-SugaringWhen the nights are below freezing and the days are mild, usually by late February or early March, the sap begins to flow through the trees and it’s time to “sugar.”

The process involves “tapping” a tree, or drilling a small hole into the tree. If sugaring is being done the old-fashioned way with buckets, a metal spile is then tapped into the hole and the buckets are hung from it. The more modern method connects tubing to plastic spouts, which carries sap to a single, larger storage tank. If done correctly, tapping will not damage a healthy tree, which can provide up to ten gallons of sap per tap hole, every season, for over a century.

It takes about ten gallons of sap to produce one quart of maple syrup, but this is a fraction of a tree’s sap production. Maple syrup and maple sugar are made by concentrating (boiling down) the sweet sap – which has a natural sugar content.

It may surprise you to learn that maple sugaring was originally a Native American custom, later adopted by the colonists. How the Native Americans discovered maple sugar is not exactly known, but an Iroquois legend has it that someone tasted an icicle hanging from a broken maple branch, and the rest is history, as they say.

For the Native Americans that did sugaring, it was a festive event. As soon as the sap began to flow, families would gather at a “sugar bush,” or maple grove. A diagonal slash would be cut in the bark of the lower part of a tree trunk. A tube, usually a hollowed-out sumac stem, was inserted in the lower end of the cut. Sap flowing from the tree was collected in small wooden containers. The sap was then transferred into a much larger wooden or bark container, and white-hot rocks heated in an open fire were dropped in to boil off the water. The process was repeated, eventually producing a granulated sugar. Besides sugar maples, the native peoples sometimes tapped red maples, black or yellow birches, silver maples, wild cherries, or even box elders. Modern sugarhouses may also tap into other species such a Norway and red maples, each with their own distinct flavor.

Experience this sweet tradition for yourself…

On March 13, 2010, step back in time at the Audubon Parker Woodland Wildlife Refuge and experience the tradition of maple sugaring. Learn more about the history of this sweet syrup and how to sugar in your own backyard. Participants taste first hand this delectable treat as they sample pancakes, muffins and doughnuts – all with fresh maple syrup. Register early, as space is limited.  For more information and to register, call (401) 949-5454 x0.  This program is appropriate for children ages 6 and up.

Situated on a 28-acre wildlife refuge in Bristol, Rhode Island, Audubon’s Environmental Education Center is open year-round and provides walking trails, nature programs, and exhibits for the whole family to discover.  For more information and a complete calendar of events, visit www.asri.org or call (401) 245-7500.

Photo provided by Audubon’s Environmental Education Center

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  • Visiting the sugar shack and checking sap buckets was one of my favorite activities as a child and as an educator. Such a sense of wonder and mystery! Yet the process is so simple and easy to understand, providing foundations for understanding stewardship, cultural history and scientific methods. Thanks for reminding us that this is the season!

  • Farm-made maple syrup is the BEST!!! A great option for northern RIers is Chepachet Farms, in Chepachet, RI. They have a small maple syrup operation. While you’re there, pick up their Maple Vinigrette dressing (it’s good, I swear!). Also at the farm, lots of small animals for the kids, including two beautiful horses. It makes for a nice road trip… Call ahead to make sure they are open…Here’s the link to their website: