The leaves of the maple tree are
wide, deeply indented leaves, varying in length from 2 to 5 inches, depending on the
The maple tree is best known for two things, it's
helicopter seeds which fall to the ground spinning like the blades of a helicopter, and
the syrup or sugar which is made from its sap. The helicopters are actually the fruit of
the maple tree. They have two small (about 1/4" across) seeds at the center, joined
together by a very weak link, and two thin, paper like wings, one on each side. When they
are ripe, these fruits often break apart and float to the earth with the wing spinning
round and round like the blades on a helicopters.
Maple syrup is probably the true fame maker for the
maple tree. While most maples have sweet sap, the sugar, also known as rock or hard maple,
produces, by far, the best sap for maple syrup and sugar. The sap of the sugar maple has
higher concentrations of sugar than the other members of the maple family, and producers
better flavored, lighter syrup.
The sugar maple (acer saccharum) is a slow growing
hard wood tree. It can reach heights of 130 feet or more and live to be very old. Often
times the truck of an old maple can be three or more feet in diameter. A tree this size,
however, is extremely old. To place a single tap on a maple tree, the trunk must be at
least 12 inches in diameter, a size taking 40 years for the tree to reach. Sugar maples
are only found in one area of the world. This ranges from Southeast Canada, down into the
Northeastern United States. Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania,
Maine, and as far west as Ohio all have sugar maples.
This is the only part of the world which has proper
conditions for this tree though, and is therefore the only part of the world that can
produce maple syrup.
The sugar maple is also sought after for its fine
wood. It is tough, hard, fancy grained wood which is often made into furniture or used as
a veneer. Some sugar maples form intricate patterns in their wood, such as the birds-eye
maple which has circles scattered through the wood resembling bird eyes.
When I say weather, I am not only referring to the
weather during the few weeks that the trees are actually tapped and the sap is being
collected, but also the weather of the previous winter, and to some extent, even the
previous year. Temperature, snowfall, snow depth, rainfall and cloud cover are all factors
in the equation.
Obviously the weather for the few weeks
during which the trees are tapped is extremely important. For the maple sap to run, the
nights must be cold, below freezing, without being too cold. Night temperatures should
ideally be in the mid 20's. If the temperature falls to far below freezing, the sap will
take to long to warm up the next morning, and will not run well. If the temperature is too
high, above freezing, the sap just won't run the next day.
Daytime temperatures are just as important.
The temperatures during the day should be in the mid 40's according to most people. If the
temperature doesn't rise above freezing, the sap will not run at all. If the temperature
is too high, the sap won't run either. While all of these things are not totally
understood, it does seem to be the truth.
Temperature is not the only part of the
weather that plays a role in the success or failure of a maple season. If the temperatures
are ideal, but the sky is always overcast, there will be a much slower run, producing much
less sap. Just as your skin feels much warmer with the sun beating ion it, so does the
maple tree. This added warmth draws the sap out of the ground and up past the tap holes
where it is collected.
As was mentioned above, the depth of the snow
on the ground during the season is also a factor. While this may seem strange, it is very
true. Snow is like a layer of insulation on the ground. If there is a deep layer of snow
on top of the frozen ground during maple season, the snow will help extend the season by
keeping the ground frozen longer. This frozen ground helps to slow the development of the
tree's leaf buds, and delay the "buddiness" of the sap. This "buddy"
flavor makes the sap unusable.
the weather before the season can affect the syrup
If the depth of the snow during the
maple season plays a role in the quality of the season, the snowfall during the previous
winter would have to be taken into consideration. It would seem, therefore, that the more
snow that fell all winter, the better the season.
As it happens, there is no simple steadfast
rules for predicting the quality of a maple season.
Snowfall is not the only pre-season weather
that influences maple sap flow. Such factors as rainfall, amount of sunshine and even
temperatures for the past year all make a difference. The more rain and snow that fell
during the previous year, the more water is available to the tree in the ground. While
this doesn't vary greatly from year to year, a dry summer will lower the water tables and
reduce sap flow the following spring.
Sunshine and temperatures during the previous
summer play a role in determining the amount of sugar the tree could produce and store in
its roots. If the summer was very cool, or very cloudy, the tree would not be able to
produce as much sugar. The lower levels of sugar may not impact the amount of sap which is
collected, but the sap will have a lower sugar concentration meaning less syrup from the
same quantity of sap.
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