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Maple Lore



How it's done


The Tree

  • The Sugar Maple, adopted as the state tree of New York in 1956, is also the state tree of Vermont and Wisconsin.
  • A deciduous shade tree, the Sugar Maple grows 60 to 80 feet tall and matures in 30-40 years. The leaves usually have five lobes with U-shaped divisions between lobes.
  • Leaves emerge in the spring along with small, yellowish, drooping flowers that fall all over the car, the driveway, and anything else under the tree.
  • The seeds, or samaras, fall in midsummer and spin like little helicopters when they fall. You can stick them on your nose and make people laugh.
  • In fall, the leaves turn golden yellow tinged with scarlet and fall to the ground, making good compost when they decompose.
  • It's possible that acid rain and other industrial pollution is endangering the sugar maples. The health of these trees appears to be declining. Hug a maple tree today!

The Sap

  • Maple sap is a barely sweet, thin, watery liquid, much like weak sugar water. It looks nothing like the thick amber syrup it becomes.
  • Sunlight, carbon dioxide from the air, and chlorophyll in the leaves work together to make the sugar that nourishes the tree. The sap is stored in the bark and wood all winter, and begins to flow throughout the tree as the days begin to warm in late winter and early spring.
  • The sugary sap helps the tree grow and live.

The Sugar

  • Vermont, Maine, New York, Ohio, and Quebec produce most of the maple syrup made in North America
  • Only trees in the coldest regions are tapped, because the sap flows best when mild days are followed by freezing nights.
  • It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup

Other sugar sources

  • • Sugar Cane
  • • Honey Bees
  • • Beets
  • • Palm Trees
  • • Walnut Trees
  • • Birch Trees
  • • Hickory Trees
  • • Sycamore Trees
  • • Ash Trees
  • • Basswood Trees
  • • Butternut Trees

Maple Snow Party

  • Maple snow parties are an integral part of sugarin'. Finished syrup is further boiled until it's foamy and slightly thicker. Then the boiling syrup is dribbled on clean snow (or on crushed ice). Within a few seconds it grows cold and waxy and chewy. You can twist it around a fork or pick it up with your fingers ; yum! yum!
  • This treat is usually eaten with sour pickles and salted crackers. (A party of 20 could eat a gallon of syrup, a gallon of pickles, and several pounds of crackers.)
  • Cider and doughnuts are also common snow party fare.


Maple Candy

  • If you boil the syrup longer it will turn solid as it cools, making maple sugar. When it reaches the sludge stage, it can be poured into molds to harden into maple sugar candy. If you boil it down further and stir it eventually it will granulate like table sugar. If you don't stir it, it forms blocks


Sap Tea

  • One cup of boiling sap from the evaporator and a tea bag



  • Mud Time: the weeks between hard winter and real spring when the sap flows
  • Sugarbush: grove of sugar maples
  • Breaking Out: work horses that have been wintered in the barn are broken out to create trails through the deep snow to the sugarbush; After the first trip a sled is attached to the team to further clear the trail
  • Sugarhouse/Sugar Shack: a shelter built near the sugarbush to protect the boiling sap from rain and snow; usually built downhill from the sugarbush so syrup can be run down to it from the trees or from a storage tank.


Boil or Freeze???

  • An alternate method used by Native Americans was to allow the collected sap to freeze overnight in shallow vessels. In the morning they would discard the ice and and repeat the process until a thick syrup was left in the containers. Some feel that this method makes the sweetest, clearest syrup.


  • Sap's rising? Well, maybe!
  • The sap actually runs both up
  • and down and round about.



  • Maple Trees are mentioned in the folklore of a number of regions.
    In New Hampshire, people say that the sap ceases to run when the first peepers are heard in the spring
    Maine old-timers claimed that too much fertilizer turned a hard maple into a soft maple in three years.
  • In parts of Vermont, it's said that old timers could tell by taste which stand of maples within a county a jug of syrup came from, whether the trees were in a valley or on a hillside facing south, and whether the trees were young or old.
  • Sitting in the sugarshack and inhaling maple steam is said to cure a cold.
  • According to Pliny, maple roots were good for a sluggish liver.
  • In England, children are passed through a maple's branches to insure long life. Also in England, maple is used to make divining rods for finding water.
  • In Alsace, storks place a piece of maple in their nests to frighten away bats whose touch will make their eggs infertile.
  • The Japanese consider the leaves of the maple akin to flowers and celebrate their appearance with one of the blossom festivals
  • At one time maple was the emblem of reserve.


  • Maple syrup was an integral part of Native American life in the northeast. Sugaring time was a festive occasion, with both men and women participating in the process, sometimes moving the entire encampment to the sugaring area. Sugar Month or Maple Moon was often celebrated with maple dances to make the sap run.
  • Birch bark buckets, hollowed logs, reeds, shingles, and bark troughs were used to collect and cook the sap. Trees were gashed on one side with a hatchet with the running sap directed to the trough at the base of the tree. Boiling the sap involved heating rocks in the fire and dropping them into the trough holding the sap.
  • Native Americans used maple sap and sugar for cooking, mixing it with grains, bean, nuts, berries and even seasoning meat. In fact, maple sugar was used in much the same way we use salt. Granulated maple sugar was stored and sold in birch-bark boxes called mokuks.

Native American words

  • • Sinzibuckwud (Algonquin)
  • • Maple Sugar; drawn from the wood
  • • Ninautik (Ojibwa)
  • • Maple Tree; our own tree
  • • Sheesheegummawis (Ojibwa)
  • • Rock Maple; sap flows fast
  • • Sisibaskwatattik (Cree) Rock Maple
  • • Sisibaskwat (Cree) Maple Sugar
  • • The first European Settlers were taught sugar harvesting by friendly Native Americans. Settlers called maple sugar Indian Sugar.

The Legends

  • Iroquois &endash; Upstate New York
  • Iroquois Chief Woksis yanked his tomahawk from a tree and went hunting.The weather turned warm and the sap began dripping into a vessel near the trunk. When his wife was ready to make dinner, she used the slightly sweet water from the vessel instead of going to the river for water to cook some moose meat. She fled in terror when the whole thing cooked down into a sticky mass, but her husband enjoyed his dinner and sought her out to compliment her.
  • Anishinabe &endash; Great Lakes Region
  • Long ago, near the beginning, Gitchee Manitou created things so that life was easy for people. The weather was never bad, there was always game to hunt, and thick sweet syrup ran in the maple trees. All you had to do was break off a twig and collect the syrup as it dripped out.
  • On a bright day, the great Nanabozho went for a walk to see what his friends, the Anishinabe, were doing. When he got to the village, there was no one there. He looked in the cornfields to see if they were hoeing &endash; no one was there. He looked by the stream, to see if they were fishing &endash; no one there. He looked in the berry patch to see if they were picking berries &endash; no one there. He looked in the woods to see if they were hunting &endash; and there they were. But, they weren't hunting. They were lying on their backs under the maple trees just letting the thick, sweet syrup drip right into their mouths.
  • Now, Nanabozho was worried. His people were going to become very fat and lazy if they kept this up.
  • Nanabozho thought and thought what to do. Then he took his big birch bark basket down to the river and filled it with water. Then he climbed to the top of the maple trees and poured the water into the trees. He did this many times until it thinned out the thick sweet syrup. Now all that came out of the trees was thin and watery and barely sweet to taste.
  • "This is how it's going to be," Nanabozho told his people. "No more syrup will run from these trees, only watery sap. If you want syrup you will have to gather many birch baskets full of sap and many logs to make a fire. You will also have to find many stones to heat in the fire and drop into the sap in the baskets. They will have to boil it a long time to make even a little syrup.
  • This will keep you from growing fat and lazy, and will make you appreciate the sweet maple syrup Gitchee Manitou has given you. And to make sure they would not get fat and lazy, Nanabozho made it so that the sap would flow only a few weeks each year, thereby forcing his people to tend to their hunting and gathering and fishing and hoeing.
  • And that is how it is.


How it's done now:

  • An upwardly slanted hole no more than half an inch wide or one and one half inches deep, is drilled into the trunk of a healthy, mature sugar maple. More than one hole can be drilled in a single tree, but not too many &endash; the tree also needs the sap. Long ago when trees were gashed with an ax, the sap would pour out, but the wounds didn't heal well and the trees soon died.
  • In the Adirondacks, it's believed that the first hole should be breast-high on the south side of the tree, and the second on the north side. It's believed the largest flow is obtained by tapping on the side bearing the most branches or over the largest root, that the richest sap comes from the layer near the bark, and, that deeper holes give a smaller amount of darker, less valuable syrup.
  • A tap, or spile, is hammered into the hole and a bucket hung on the spile to collect the sap as it drips from the tree. Buckets are covered with "hats" to keep out rain and snow. In some large operations, plastic tubes are used to carry the sap from the tree.
  • When full, the buckets are emptied into a larger gathering bucket fitted with a flared rim to keep the syrup from sloshing out as it's carried from the tree. A full gathering bucket can weigh 30 lbs. Sap is collected in a gathering tank that is often pulled into the sugarbush on a horsedrawn sled. The sap is poured into the gathering tank through a cone-shaped metal filter that removes pieces of bark and leaves. This is the first of three filterings.
  • When the gathering tank is full, the sled is driven to a location uphill from the sugarhouse and the sap poured into a storage tank or an evaporator. Sap must be boiled within a week, or it may spoil.
  • The sap is boiled in an evaporator, a series of partitioned boiling pans about 4' by 3' by 1' deep. The boiling sap is moved through the partitions as it reaches graduated stages of evaporation and thickens into syrup. The darker the syrup, the sweeter it gets. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
  • As the sap boils, foam rises to the top. This is how the sap cleanses itself of foreign matter such as small pieces of bark and niter, a kind of salt sometimes called sugar sand, which rises to the top when sap is boiled. This foam must be skimmed off the top and discarded. If the foam comes too fast and appears about to boil over, a pat of butter is tossed in to break the surface tension. If the sap was being boiled down in the kitchen, a piece of salt pork was sometimes hung above the kettle. If the sugar boiled too high, it would hit the pork and subside.
  • Sap turns to syrup at 218 o F. (At this point things can happen fast, and the sap can turn to sugar, burn and even explode as the temperature rises.)
  • There are signs that the sap is about to turn to syrup &endash; it becomes darker, an amber color, and the bubbles become very fine, then suddenly grow huge and explosive looking. The final test is called sheeting or aproning, when the liquid slowly gathers along the edge of the scoop and does not dribble off in separate drops. Sap does not sheet, only syrup does.
  • At the sheeting stage, the syrup is drawn off through a spigot at the end of the last partition in the evaporator. A sample is measured with a hydrometer which checks the specific gravity, or density of the liquid. Syrup should weigh eleven lbs. per gallon. This is the weight at which it keeps best. If it's too heavy, it might crystallize; if too thin, it might ferment. The hydrometer will float at the red line marked 31.5 if the syrup is the proper weight. When the 31.5 mark on the hydrometer sinks below the surface, the spigot is turned off until more sap turns to syrup.
  • The finished syrup is now filtered through felt funnels lined with heavy paper, the final step in cleansing the syrup of any foreign matter and remaining niter.
  • Syrup is graded by color as Fancy, Grade A and Grade B. A grading sample kit is used to assure consistency in labeling. In earlier times maple sugar was cheaper and easier to get than cane sugar, but people wanted their maple sugar to be as much like cane sugar as possible &endash; light in color with no maple flavor, . The grading system reflects this obsolete usage. Fancy is too pale and weakly flavored to suit most modern tastes for pancake syrup.
  • Once graded, the finished syrup is poured into containers to be sold and the trees prepare to greet the summer warmth and begin the process over again.
  • It's all over in a few weeks.

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