Helpful Herbs: Sugar Maple
While the Sugar Maple Tree isn’t exactly a herb, its sweet syrup is a staple feature of every New England spring. Maple trees can be planted on your property, but often you’ll find them already in abundance in wooded areas. Tapping and processing their sap will give you fresh, home made maple syrup.
The Sugar Maple, or Rock Maple as it is sometimes called, can be propagated from cuttings or purchased as saplings. If you can find existing, fully grown trees you can start tapping right away, which is helpful because it takes approximately forty years for a tree to reach maturity. Tappable trees are 10″ in diameter or larger. The Sugar Maple tree can grow much bigger than that, however, and often lives for over 400 years.
Sugar Maples shouldn’t be confused with the Norway Maple, which is a recent addition to New England forests. Norway Maples produce syrup as well, and are more tolerant to growing in shade, but they are considered an invasive species in North America and are threatening the growth of other trees.
Sugar Maple trees grow from Ontario and Nova Scotia south to approximately Kentucky, and around the Great Lakes, allowing for a large number of people to enjoy their delicious sap. In the early spring, late February or March, the sap will start running in the Maple trees and they can be tapped. Tapping a tree involves drilling a hole about 2″ deep and 5/16″ wide. Insert a special sugaring spile, and hang a bucket to catch the sap in. The sap directly from the tree is maple flavored sugar water, delicious to drink but not the syrup you might be used to.
Making syrup involves boiling the sap down and filtering out any sediment. This is a fairly lengthy process, transferring from a large container to smaller ones as the water boils off. A single tapped Sugar Maple will produce about 10 gallons of sap. This results in approximately 1/2 gallon of syrup. For a full gallon of maple syrup, you need about 40 gallons of maple sap.
Maple syrup is delicious on pancakes and waffles, but there are other ways to utilize it in your kitchen. You can drizzle it over all sorts of sweet treats, including popcorn, scones, and even in coffee. Syrup is an ingredient in a lot of pies and puddings, and can be a substitute for honey or sugar in a recipe. You can use syrup to sweeten roasted vegetables, and maple glazes on donuts and sausages fill them with flavor. You can even use syrup on a salad to add sweetness, in fact the number of ways you can taste the sugary goodness of maple syrup is almost innumerable.
Maple syrup is a very healthy natural sweetener. It has a low calorie count, making ideal for dieters to use. It is full of antioxidants and boosts the immune system, and it is recommended to help prevent heart disease and other cardiovascular issues because of its high levels of zinc. Maple syrup is also full of other great nutrients, such as magnesium, calcium, and potassium.
Native Americans have been harvesting syrup from Sugar Maple trees for centuries, and introduced the process to Europeans when they first arrived on North American shores. The Maple Dance of the Sugar Moon was part of Native rituals, and the processing of maple syrup is one of the few agricultural systems that was not a European import to the Northeastern US. Maple sugar water would fortify a person, reviving strength and combating hunger – important in the early weeks of March, when other food resources had often run out.
Legend says that maple syrup was first discovered by the Earth goddess Nokomis, and the sap was originally harvested using reeds as spiles and hollowed out logs for collection. With modern advancements, large scale maple syrup producers now use vacuum pumps and specialized filtering techniques, but making maple syrup the traditional way is still a skill that many New Englanders treasure.
An ancient sweetener that is good for your health, maple syrup is easy to harvest in small batches and can be used in a surprising number of ways.