Each February, we celebrate the return of another maple sugar season at Irvine Nature Center. We refer to it as "maple magic" because the sweet sap is gift flowing from the trees – one which can only be harvested in late winter. All the Native American legend and North American folklore is not enough. We need to experience the maple magic every year.
We carefully select a few trees, some of which are NOT maples, and put their "taps" in place. The taps are also known as spiles. Back in the day, these spiles were carved out of wood, though today they are metal or plastic. We trudge through snowy trails to check our sap buckets and share this miraculous process with our visitors. We even boil the sap down to make syrup in our old-fashioned evaporator (a fire-burning oven with a large, shallow pan on top). We search for tapped trees. We look for clues left by hungry winter wildlife like yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Visitors do a taste test to see if they can identify the real maple syrup from another sweetener, corn syrup (sorry, Log Cabin – you’re busted!).
As natural sweeteners go, golden honey oozing from a comb may come to mind. In fact, the honeybees that make this treat were introduced to North America during the colonial settlement. It was sap, not honey, that natives relied on to sweeten foods either by cooking food in sap or boiling it down to make syrup. Sap can also be boiled down to become sugar (and it makes delicious candy, too).
Truly special is the timing of the sweet sap. When the temperature changes and sunlight increases, that's the signal for trees to prepare for spring. The cue is cold, freezing temps at night with milder, 40 degree temps during the day. To gear up for spring, trees go into overdrive making sap. Tender new buds form tiny baby leaves with the help of the extra sugar found in sap.
Like blood to animals, sap is the life force of trees. But it is only sweet before spring arrives. Once the leaves are on the trees, other nutrients join the sap which makes it become bitter if boiled down. So the real secret is to collect sap in late winter before the buds open. And although you’ll hear the sap being called “sweet”, it’s only about 3% sugar and 97% water, which is why it must be boiled down to make syrup.
Soon maple sugar season will be over and sadly, spring will arrive. So let the maples cast their spell on you. Don’t miss maple magic this year!
Some 'sweet' stories you may want to check out with your tot:
Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola
Sugar Snow by Laura Ingalls Wilder
At Grandpa’s Sugar Bush by Margaret Carney
(cool) tip: Did you know that maple syrup is beneficial for your child's immune system (well, for everyone's immune system actually!)? It's an excellent source of zinc - - which our immune systems depend on for optimal function. And for the sweet craver in your life, maple syrup is 100% natural and 3 times as sweet as pure cane sugar with fewer calories. A little bit goes a looonnnggg way.
Monica Wiedel-Lubinski is the Director of The Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center. For more great ways to share nature with your children, visit www.ExploreNature.org or check out all of Monica's (cool) progeny Nature Play contributions.