DANVILLE, Pa. — It’s almost spring time and in central Pennsylvania that means one thing — maple sugaring season has begun.
For the 41st year, the staff and volunteers at utility company PPL’s Montour Preserve opened up their facility to kids and adults alike so they could learn more about the ooey, gooey, sweet liquid that’s perfect on everything from pancakes to sausage links.
Last Saturday, hundreds of kids and adults swarmed to the Preserve’s Environmental Education Center to learn about the history of maple syrup and the process for extracting the liquid sugar from maple trees.
Naturalist Jon Beam explained the history of maple sugaring, which dates all the way back to the Native Americans.
When the Native Americans first discovered the substance and boiled the sap into syrup, they didn’t have a good way to store the end result, so they would make a type of sugar cube that looked like a bar of soap. Then, they would cut off a slice of the cube when they needed it for cooking. This was much easier than storing it in containers, because at the time, they didn’t have a way of preserving it.
It turns out that maple syrup was the sweetening product of choice until the Civil War, when white cane sugar became readily available and affordable.
Beam showed samples of the tree sap — which is actually clear like water (it turns a caramel brown color through the process of boiling) — and a sample of a tree trunk that had been drilled previously. The wood showed some brown discolorations where the spiles (hollow tubes that are inserted into the tree) had been located, and while the bark had healed, the spile holes were still evident inside.
The kids in attendance asked questions during the presentation.
A young boy from Danville, Pa., asked: “Does the age of the tree affect the taste of the syrup?” Beam explained that age, perhaps surprisingly, does not affect the taste of the syrup.
It Takes a Lot of Trees and a Lot of Boiling
While the times and technologies have changed, one thing remains the same, according to Beam, “You still need to take the sap from many trees and boil it for many, many hours.”
It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. And a maple sugar tree can’t be tapped until it’s at least 40 years old and a certain size in diameter.
Perfect maple sugaring conditions are clear, cold nights that get down to freezing (20-30 degrees) and then warm, sunny days in the 40s. This allows the sap to stop flowing at night and start flowing again in the daytime.
A young girl raised her hand and asked if tapping hurts the tree, and Beam explained that it’s similar to a person giving a pint of blood. If the tree is healthy, it will recover quickly.
Columbia County Commissioner Chris Young asked how the Native Americans discovered the sweet sap. Beam explained that this is one piece of history that is based on educated guesswork. Historians think that perhaps the Native Americans watched the grey squirrels climb the trees, nip off the top branches and eat the sap. That caused them to wonder about the substance and discover its sweetness for themselves.
After the lecture and a movie, participants walked to nearby Goose Woods, where they had the chance to see old-fashioned wooden spiles being drilled by PPL retiree and volunteer Byron Roth. Then, modern-day spiles were drilled into the tree by Debra Steransky. Ideally, spiles are inserted into the south side of the tree about 2 inches deep. Once the spile is in, a covered bucket is hung from it.
Debra asked the kids in the group why the spiles and metal buckets were covered. A young girl from Bloomsburg, Pa., answered correctly — the contraption kept the rain out of the sugar water.
“The last thing we want is for something that is already 90 percent water to become even more watered down,” Steransky said.
Then, the group visited the “sugar shack,” where the extracted sugar sap was being boiled down in a large wood-fueled burner. The station was manned by Gerald Houseknecht and Ken Mertz. The men explained that while all maple trees have sap, sugar maple trees have the highest concentration and that the sap boils just seven degrees above the boiling point of water.
So, next time you eat maple syrup on your pancakes, thank a tree!