THIS RURAL LIFE: The History of Maple Syrup


Families have been enjoying the sweet taste of delicious, all natural, 100% pure maple syrup for hundreds of years now. Various legends exist to explain the initial discovery of the syrup by early Native Americans of the Northeast. One particular legend states that the Iroquois Chief threw his tomahawk at a Sugar Maple tree in late winter, and the dripping tree sap collected by his wife was used to boil venison. Imagine his sweet surprise to have dinner smothered in syrup! Years later, the technology of “sugar making” has evolved since the tomahawk, but the essence of the process is virtually the same: collect sap, reduce over heat.

This hardwood tree is known for its brilliant display of fall foliage with leaf color ranging from fire-red to brilliant yellow. Although, native to western Virginia they are now found all over the state due to planting. The Sugar Maple contains the highest percentage of sugar out of all the maples in Virginia.  While Sugar Maples are by far the favorite tree for syrup making, Red Maples, Silver Maples and Box Elders can also be used.

During the growing season, maple tree leaves draw energy from the sun to manufacture simple sugars for many uses in the tree. Most excess sugars will be sent to the trunk and roots to be stored for later use. In late winter when the weather starts to warm, these sugars, in the form of a free-flowing clear liquid called “sap”, are drawn back up into the trunk for use in preparation for spring growth. At this point there is a period of time when sap can be harvested or “tapped” then boiled down to make maple syrup. As the internal temperature of the tree warms in spring, sap no longer flows and all energy is put toward budding and new growth.

Tree Tapping and Syrup Boiling

“Sugar makers” are avid weather watchers and will start tapping sugar maples when daytime temperatures rise above 40 degrees F and nighttime temperatures dip into the twenties. Generally, this will happen late February and early March. Tapping consists of drilling a small hole just about an inch behind the bark, inserting a “spile” or spout, attaching a bucket to collect the sap and then waiting for the sap to flow. A single tap tree (at least 11 inches in diameter) will provide approximately 10 gallons of sap within a few days to make one quart of syrup.  Once sap is collected, the boiling begins. Typically, the boiling process is broken up into 2 parts. First, the all-day-long-boil-down occurs over an outdoor wood fire in large pots or shallow pans. This is where the 10 gallons of clear sap is reduced to about a gallon of a murky amber substance. At this point, the boiling process is moved indoors where the final boil can be closely monitored until the exact moment sap turns to clear golden syrup. This delicious syrup is then bottled, shared with family and friends, and ultimately used to make treats and sweeten breakfast pancakes.

If you are interested in this process and would like to dive deeper, there are amazing resources out there to assist in maple tree identification, finding the right tree for tapping and tools needed for the job.  CFC Farm & Home Center is now stocking tools of the trade. The Annual Highland Maple Festival is also another great place to learn all about making syrup and will be taking place in Highland County, Virginia starting the 10th of March.

Shaun Thomas works at CFC Farm & Home Center in Culpeper. Her degree in Biology paired with her passion for bugs, bees, poultry and organic gardening make her your go-to girl for advice on your farm/farmette/market garden or your everyday home garden.

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