Poured over pancakes or drizzled into every nook of a waffle, maple syrup is one of nature’s greatest gifts.
Real maple syrup is made from a single ingredient — sap, a mixture of water, minerals, and sugars that circulates in the vascular system of a maple tree. (Remember the xylem and the phloem from elementary-school biology class?)
As the area’s short sap-collecting season kicks off — it generally runs from late February through early April — Philadelphians can taste the sticky liquid straight from the tree at several maple tappings (see the list below).
What makes this sap season? “When the temperature drops below freezing at night, and then rises back above freezing during the day,” says Margaret Rohde, conservation manager with the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association.
Rohde explains that when temperatures fall below 32 degrees, the pressure inside the tree becomes less than the pressure outside the tree. This causes sap to travel up from a tree’s roots through pores in its trunk. As temperatures warm back up, the pressure changes and the sap gets pushed back down. Maple tappers try to catch the sap mid-route.
If your maple trees are at least 40 years old, you can get in on the action, too. The process is fairly simple, requiring little more than a drill, a 5/16-inch or 7/16-inch drill bit, and a tapping spout known as a spile.
“You can really drill anywhere on the trunk, you just need to make sure you go right around 3 inches deep — this is where the xylem and phloem layer is, essentially the tube where the sap runs up and down,” Rohde says. “The drill should be angled slightly upward so that gravity can help the sap flow out of the tree.”
The spile is gently hammered into the drill hole, and from there, the waiting process begins. Don’t expect a geyser of sap to gush from the tree. It’s more like a leaky-faucet slow drip.
“If you have consistent freeze-thaw conditions, you could get up to one gallon a day, but you need at least 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” Rohde says.
That’s because sap is almost entirely made up of water. Take a sip and that’s how it’ll taste, too. Even a sugar maple’s sap — which, at 2 percent sugar, has the highest sugar content of any maple tree — tastes watery.
To make syrup, the sap must be boiled down until the remaining liquid is 66 percent sugar. At home, that steamy simmering process can take all day and, unless you want to strip your wallpaper, should always be done outside, over a fire, grill, or wood stove. Color and thickness can be used to gauge when it’s ready, or dip in a hydrometer — the tool professionals use to test viscosity.
Though it doesn’t make nearly as much as top annual producers Quebec and Vermont, Pennsylvania is one of the top 10 maple syrup producers worldwide. The state ranked sixth in the nation last year, yielding 142,000 gallons of the stuff, according to the USDA.
“It takes so much to make so little, so it becomes this novelty that really gives you respect for both the trees and the price of maple syrup,” Rohde says. “The best is watching kids realize syrup is just tree water — they often yell out a big ‘woah’ when they first see [the sap] trickling from the tree.”
To see a maple tapping firsthand, check out one of these events. Most feature harvesting demos as well as maple syrup and/or maple candy tastings.
Feb. 23, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wissahickon Environmental Center, 300 W. Northwestern Ave., free, fow.org
Feb. 23, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tyler Arboretum, 515 Painter Rd., Media, $16 for adults, $10 for children ages 3 to 12, free for those under 3 years, tylerarboretum.org
Feb. 23, 1 to 2:30 p.m., Silver Lake Nature Center, 1306 Bath Rd., $5, silverlakenaturecenter.org/event
Feb. 24, 2 p.m., Norristown Farm Park, 2500 Upper Farm Rd., Norristown, free, montcopa.org/874/Norristown-Farm-Park
Feb. 24, 11 a.m., Churchville Nature Center, 501 Churchville Lane, Southampton, $5 for maple sugar program, $10 for pancake breakfast, churchvillenaturecenter.org
March 2, noon to 4 p.m., Fox Chase Farm, 8500 Pine Rd., $3 per person, foxchasefarm.org/events.html
March 2, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Green Lane Park, 2144 Snyder Rd., Green Lane, free, montcopa.org/Calendar.aspx?EID=2205
March 2-3 and 9-10, 1 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Sundays, 355 Washington Crossing Pennington Rd., Titusville, N.J., free with advance registration, state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washington_crossing_calendar.htm
March 2, 9:30 and 11 a.m., Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, 31 Titus Mill Rd., Pennington, N.J., $22 for those over 13 years, $15 for children ages 3-13, free for children under 3, thewatershed.doubleknot.com/event/calendar