There is no secret why I named my blog Maplewood Press: I adore maple trees.
Even as a young child I was fascinated by these magical trees.
Why do I think Maple Trees are magical?
When you conjure up the perfect romantic vision of New England, it usually includes hillsides or back roads lined with large trees sporting red, orange, and yellow leaves. Oh, and toss in a steepled white church and a covered bridge. You wouldn’t be wrong. Those maple trees and that scenery still exists. Every fall “Leaf Peepers” fill the roads to see them.
As autumn closes in, the leaves turn off their nutrient making ability by shutting down the chlorophyll. It knows that cold air is coming that will cool down the tree and make the sap flow sluggish, or in other words, the highways will be closed! With the green chlorophyll gone, poof!…its true colors can now be seen, such as bright reds, orange and yellow. Magic!
Their job done, the large and wide hand shaped leaves let go of their anchors on the branches and drift back and forth like parachutes down to the ground. Occasionally they get caught up in a wind and will form what looks like a leaf tornado! Back down they fall to create a colorful carpet at the base of the tree. My childhood schoolyard would fill up with these leaves. What fun we had tossing them, jumping in piles of them, or using them to mark out rooms in our elaborate make believed houses or forts.
Here is a page of all that observed wonder out of one of my old sketch journals.
Capturing and preserving their quickly fading beauty is something I have tried to do as have many many others. The most popular and easiest way is to collect the best and brightest and tuck them between pages of a large book. I once tried to save them by pressing them between clear sheets of plastic and then ran them through a laminating machine-not the greatest of ideas, but they did hold up for a few seasons. Other ways to save their images is of course photographing them, or you can scan them. I also tried placing paint on them and pressing them onto paper. That is how I created this picture and some of my logos.
In my hometown there are many streets that are lined with tall huge maple trees that have to be in the two hundred year old range or more. With their wide crowns and low branches, they are perfect shade trees. I loved riding my bike on hot summer days down those streets! Instant air conditioning! And how wonderful are these trees that bless us with ever changing appearances, keeping in step with the seasons. They shade us in the summer, fill our hearts with colorful beauty in the fall, and in the winter they have shed all leaves so the sun can warm our houses. To see the different “seasons” of the lovely maple, check out my other article “Maple Tree Adoration” that I will link at the bottom of this article.
Goofy and Fun Seeds
Before the helicopter was invented, the maple tree’s funky seedpods were spinning their way through the air. In backyards and playgrounds all over New England and Canada, kids are picking these unique seeds up in the fall and tossing them as high as they can to watch them spiral back down to earth. They have the coolest wing shapes that look like veins through them, like a batwing! The seeds attached are textured and when they are dry, peel away like paper. Now you can’t tell me they are not magical!!
Yes in deed! Back in history the Native Americans of the New England and Canadian regions knew if they cut into the maple tree, clear sweet sap would flow out. They drank it, used it in cooking, and boiled it down into sugar they could carry with them. With no means to preserve it, it would have to be boiled down right after collecting because it would spoil quickly. They in turn taught the first European colonists. At the time cane sugar was very expensive to import, so learning about maple sugar was welcomed.
With the invention of sheet metal in the late 1800s and the invention of cans, farmers could now make and preserve syrup.
Add in new refrigeration techniques and people were more willing to buy it. Farmers could now turn their maple groves into profit! It wouldn’t be easy. Mother Nature and her whims with regards to when New England should give up winter and allow warm air to creep in, can vary year to year. And when the sap starts to flow its all hands on deck round the clock for a few weeks-if you are lucky.
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A grove of very old maple trees.
A handmade stonewall separating the forest and a dirt road.
Teen boys in flannel coats and ear muff hats.
Loud laughter drifting through the woods.
Worn and dirty boots breaking through crunchy spring snow.
Gloved hands collecting metal buckets from the maple tree taps.
Brothers racing each other over the stone wall, onto the dirt road
to dump their sap booty into the large metal tub on the wagon.
Chilly air surrounds the little kid waiting on the wagon.
Slow moving horses inch it along, unaffected by the flurry of activity.
Coming into view, an old wood shack
Sweet smelling steam billows out the wide chimney.
Inside magic is happening-tasty syrup is being made!
Those are the snippets of memory that I have of a childhood visit to a farm during maple sugaring time in the spring. It was fun, exciting, and filled with so many treats for my senses!
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In the summer and early fall the maple trees are a sugar factory, making nutrients to feed the leaves and to add onto and strengthen the trunk and roots. Extra “food” that was produced was sent down the tree and roots to be stored. There it would sit in its “pantry” till spring and locked away from us!
Maple sugar season begins when the days are above freezing and the nights are still below freezing, usually in March through mid April. These temperature differences cause a delicate sap dance inside the maple trees. The trees will start pulling in water and mix it with the starch it has stored converting it back to sugar. This sap starts to move up inside the tree, heading out to feed the branches so they can start producing leaves. When the temperature returns to cold at night, the sap will flow back down to collect more water and nutrients. When the day brings warm temperatures again, the rejuvenated sap flows back up to feed the leaf buds again. Now is the time to tap the trees!
Farmers who want to keep their trees healthy and productive for years, will be careful to choose the right size trees. They should choose trees at least 10-12 inches wide or more at chest height. They will place only one tap in that sized tree. Much older and wider ones they can risk two. If drilled carefully once the season if over, that tap hole will heal over. Recently I visited the Lamothe’s Sugar House in CT and he displayed the cross section of an old maple. If you look carefully, you can see the tap scars going back many years.
The collection of maple sap if full of anticipation and also based on bits of luck to have good weather/temperature conditions. You can’t predict ahead of time the exact day the sap will start running, but you can be ready for it. There is documentation going back decades of how families and farmers made sure their equipment was ready to go! Then everyone would have to jump in to help. The season is short lived, only a few weeks and sap spoils quickly, so the buckets would have to be collected daily, more often if the day was very warm. Once collected, the boiling down of it should start right away, too. Yes, all capable hands were needed to make the sugaring season a success! Snooze, you loose!
In colonial times and up to the 1800s, they used large cauldrons and pots to boil down the sap that is 98% water!
With the introduction of metal, shallow wide pans were used to speed up the process and stand alone sugar houses with big chimneys and venting were built. And this process didn’t change for decades!
To a small kid-me- that sugar shack in the woods spitting out sweet smelling steam was like finding the Gingerbread House in the story of Hansel and Gretel, minus the nasty witch. It was magical!
Fast forward to the modern maple sugar farmers, everything is now more efficient. Tubing is stretched between hundreds of trees and the sap is pumped to a central storage container, cutting down hours of daily work. The evaporation and boiling down process has also been improved to take less time and energy.
Even though the professional farmers have added fancy equipment and short cuts, the process is basically the same: collect sap, boil it down to syrup, and then store it safely to be used later. Anyone can do that on a small scale. All you need is access to sap, basic equipment, how-to instructions, can build a safe fire in your backyard, and lots of time and patience. I have several friends who are backyard maple syrup makers.
What a tease Miss Maple is!
She only gives us a few weeks of gorgeous leaves and a few weeks to take her delicious sap. And she likes to be a mystery about the exact timing, keeping us on our toes and always guessing. Yes, I do adore these trees!
Atwood… eating pancakes under the full Maple Spring Moon!
I highly recommend this fun book that introduces all aspects of maple trees and sugaring. It includes detailed pictures and photos: “Maple Sugar from Sap to Syrup. The history, lore, and how-to behind this sweet treat” by Tim Herd.
Even though we think first of maple syrup and pancakes, you can use it in any recipe that requires sugar. The https://vermontmaple.org/ site tells you how to do that. “Substitute ¾ cup of maple syrup for every one cup of granulated white sugar….” You will find recipes and all sorts of information here.
When my boys were little and money was tight, pancakes were a great fall back meal. I would double the batch and freeze the extra between layers of Saran Wrap that I then placed in a plastic storage bag. The boys could go grab one or two anytime and microwave them up. Here is my much loved go to recipe from my old “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. I always added a couple tablespoons of wheat germ to perk up the nutritional value. Don’t tell my sons!
To see how a modern farmer collects the sap and processes it, check out Woodbury Sugar Shed, Inc.’s website. https://www.woodburysugarshed.com/sugarhouse/
Want to learn how to do it yourself? You could start here with this website and it’s videos: https://tapmytrees.com/
Be sure and check out Part One: Maple Tree Adoration: http://maplewoodpress.com/maple-tree-adoration/
And I will end with this thought: From my book Harvest Grove: “Large confetti of red, gold, and orange were tossed up in the wake of the passing motorcycle. Once green with fluid life pulsing through their veins, the leaves now blushed in their swan song. Recovered from the disturbance of the un-natural wind, they continued to swirl down to the earth to become decomposed food for their mother’s roots.”