Today, on the first day of spring, it appears that winter may finally be running out of steam here in southeastern Michigan. Sunshine, rain and warmer weather have combined to beat winter back, even if for the short term. Robins can be seen propecting for patches of bare earth for the years' first worms, and daily temperature fluctuations are causing maple trees to send up sap. This ebb and flow is often tapped by people who collect tree sap to make maple syrup. It's a labor-intensive endeavor deemed totally worth it by those who love real maple syrup on pancakes, waffles or ice cream.
In cold climates, many species of trees including red, black, sugar and silver maples store starch in their root systems as sugars. When spring temperatures rise above freezing during the day, these trees send up xylem sap during the day (My middle school science teacher told us to memorize this by remembering that xylem goes up, and phloem flows down). When nighttime temperatures drop, the sap then flows back to the roots and lower trunk sections. Tree tappers bore small holes in the trunks of these trees and insert a hollow tube called a tap that allows sap to flow freely through a tube and into a bucket or jug for collection. Weather and tree conditions determine how much sap can be collected and how long it flows for. A maple tree might produce a gallon or twenty gallons per season - you never know how much you might get until you set some taps.
Once collected, the sap can be boiled or cooked until it's reduced down to the end result - maple syrup. The low sugar content of the sap means approximately 40 gallons go into a gallon of syrup. Individual people cooking syrup frequently use propane burners or open wood fires to heat the syrup, while commercial producers use a combination of technical processes to get the finished product.
Processes and methods aside, there are several uses for maple syrup. Aside from the usual applications for pancakes, waffles and desserts, maple syrup candies and taffy are two great ways to enjoy this natural treat.
Both of these recipes are very simple to make, requiring only heat and one or two ingredients. Maple syrup taffy is easy to make once there is fresh-fallen snow. Before you get too excited about this, remember that it's only mid-March and this is Michigan - we're probably due at least one more decent snowfall before winter is over. For maple candy, all you need is two cups of good syrup and chopped nuts, if you want to add those.
Check the list below for simple steps to make these maple syrup treats.
Enjoy and tight lines!