Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sweetness from Trees

There's a specific time of year when winter begins to thaw, but spring has not yet awakened, when something almost magical happens in trees.The nights are still freezing, but the mercury begins to creep above thirty-two during the day. These are the days when you aren't really sure which jacket to take, though you definitely still need one. This exact time of year is the optimal time to tap maple trees for sap to make maple syrup!

B's class had a field trip this past week to the North Park Village Nature Center and the lovely Ms. Liza and Ms. Ashley from their staff led us on an adventure through the woods to try our hand at tapping a tree for sap.

First, we learned some of the science behind maple syrup. All trees produce sap that can be boiled down to make syrup, but the sap from maple trees, and specifically sugar maples, produces the best taste. The trees must be at least forty years old which allows them time to grow to at least fifteen inches in diameter before they can be tapped, although the optimal age seems to be sixty to eighty years old.

After the leaves have fallen off of the trees in the fall, they have no need for the starch that they have produced, so it is stored up in their roots where it converts to sugar. Then, as the days grow longer and increased sunlight begins to warm their trunks, all of this stored up sugar rises up the tree and into its branches, ready to feed the sprouting buds and growing leaves that will soon dress them.
Some other organisms had some stored up sugar in their roots that needed to be released, too, and this path was taken at a full sprint, our only speed of the day.

Tap the trees too soon and the sap won't flow. Wait too long and it won't taste good because all of the sugar will be feeding the leaves. Harvesting maple sap is a time-honored tradition that traces its origins far back to the history of the indigenous peoples on this land.
Tapping the trees is a three part process. We drilled a small hole, called a button, into the trunk.
Then we inserted a metal spile into the button.
 Finally, we collected the sap as it dripped from the tree. 
We tasted the sap straight from the tree and it was sweet, but woodsy, and very diluted, almost like coconut water. The kids all said it was disgusting, but I enjoyed trying it. While we didn't get to see any of the refining process, the next step would have been to boil down the gallons of collected sap to make syrup. It takes forty gallons of sap to produce just one gallon of syrup, no wonder it's so expensive!

Maple syrup is such a delicious gift from nature. I always keep it in the house and we enjoy it on pancakes, waffles, or a piece of breakfast sausage that accidentally finds its way into the pool on the plate, yum... Today we enjoyed some on popcorn, which was a first for me, but very tasty!
In the past, I've struggled with this season of the year, preferring even the blanket of snow or the first buds of spring to this muddy time of brownness and waiting. I saw it as a bitter end to another hard, long season, winter's ugly last word before throwing in the towel.
There is work being done, however, beneath the thawing ground and in the brown bark of those trees, and the sweet reward at the end of this season is nature's promise each spring that it was merely resting and preparing to be fruitful again. Now I think I will try to view this thawing time as "maple syrup season," and celebrate with a pancake or two.

If you'd like to learn more about maple syrup or try your hand at tapping a tree here in Chicago, you can check out the Syrup Festival at the Nature Center on March 19th!


Hi! It's me, B! My favorite part of the field trip was when we got to drill the tree open. There are more than one hundred ways to use maple syrup. What is your favorite? Like us and reply!

See you next time!


  1. Hi Bailey,

    I use it in a tasty chicken recipe!

    1. Ok, this is intriguing! I had not thought to use it on chicken! Please share, your recipes are always top notch, Aunt B!

  2. For some reason, my comment showed up as Jess but it was Aunt b

    1. We'll pretend that the two of you are of one mind... :)