Sugar maple trees deliver the nectar of the season

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As winter draws to a close, a highly anticipated season emerges. Pancake breakfasts, tree-tapping demonstrations and maple sugar delicacies abound as people gather at maple festivals across Pennsylvania to taste the nectar of the season.

Much attention is given to this amber-colored liquid, however, the unsung workhorse of the season is the sugar maple tree. As it stands tall and strong, bringing forth the coveted sap, there is much going on beneath its gray-brown furrowed bark.

"That's the factory," said Robert Hansen, educator in forest resources for Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension.

Maple sugaring culminates with tapping, but the year-long process begins in the summer when sugar maples start producing sugar in their crown -- the branches, leaves and reproductive structures extending from the trunk and main stems. The sugar is converted to energy for the tree to grow, a process known as respiration.

"Most living things do that in one form or another," said Hansen.

The sugar goes into the sap and travels down the tree to the roots, where it is stored during winter. When temperatures begin to dip below freezing at night and remain above freezing during the day, the sap travels up the tree, dispensing the sugar.

"In the spring, trees need that energy to start coming back to life after being dormant," said Hansen.

Sugar maples grow all over Pennsylvania, but are concentrated in the northern tier and in Somerset and Bedford counties where the cooler climate typical of these higher elevations is preferred. Hansen said the soils and past glaciation in some areas also contribute to their prevalence.

Another large population can be found on the 2,400 acres of Mingo Creek County Park in Finleyville. Jeff Donahue, superintendent of recreation for Washington County parks, attributes their density to the rich soils and forested land.

To identify sugar maples in winter, Donahue said to look for grayish brown bark with vertical furrows and branches, with buds in an opposite arrangement on the twigs. The leaves, if they're apparent this time of year, are simple single structures and, like the buds, grow in pairs in an opposite arrangement. They typically have five lobes with U-shaped connections between each lobe.

Donahue said discerning the types of maple trees that produce the best syrup requires a trained eye."

"It's not something you can learn in an hour," he said. "It becomes recognizable over time."

Every year, he and his crew tap 20 to 25 sugar maples in preparation for their annual festival. Demonstrations of historical and modern sap collection methods are followed by a pancake breakfast featuring maple syrup made from the sap collected at the park.

Donahue said they began tapping the trees the second week of February.

"This is the earliest we've tapped our trees," he said. "It's been good."

Tapping ends once enough syrup is made for the pancake breakfast, typically 5 gallons.

"We tap out of necessity, not to get giant quantities," said Donahue. "We just do it for the breakfast and to encourage the public to come out. We're not in production to sell."

Any maple tree can be tapped for sap, but sugar and black maples are best because of the high sugar content. At 2 percent sugar, 40 gallons of sap are required to make 1 gallon of syrup.

Hansen likens tapping trees to giving blood.

"You can give blood without it doing a whole lot of damage to you," he said. "Similarly, it doesn't damage the tree, and it's not taking things that it's going to need."

It takes two to four years for bark to heal from tapping -- a process Hansen describes as magic.

"When the tree is injured with a hole, it immediately starts to put up protective barriers inside the wood that will block the transportation of sap," he said. "When people say 'the tap runs dry,' that means the tree has blocked that off and the season has come to an end."

Dry taps and swelling buds on trees are signs of the close of the maple sugaring season. If sap continues to flow on a budding tree, the maple syrup that is produced is called "buddy" syrup. Hansen said it doesn't taste good and has an unpleasant smell when boiled.

"That's when I quit," he said. "When I start to smell that, I know we're done for the year."

Maple sugaring events

March 19 Maple Sugar Class. Harrison Hills Park Environmental Learning Center, Natrona Heights. Maple tree tapping demonstration and syrup sampling. 2-4 p.m. 724-733-4618.

March 22-25 Maple Sugaring. Jennings Environmental Education Center, Slippery Rock. 90-minute program for grades 1-6. Sessions 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. 724-794-6011.

March 27 More Maple Sugaring. Jennings Environmental Education Center, Slippery Rock. Indoor program on tree functions, guided walk featuring taste of maple syrup. 2 p.m. 724-794-6011.

March 26-27, March 30-31, April 1-3 Pennsylvania Maple Festival. Meyersdale. Pancake breakfasts, auto and tractor shows, maple sugaring demonstrations, etc., 814-634-0213.

March 27 More Maple Sugaring. Jennings Environmental Education Center, Slippery Rock. Indoor program on tree functions, guided walk featuring taste of maple syrup. 2 p.m. 724-794-6011.

April 2-3 Maple Syrup Festival. Brady's Run County Park, Fallston. Tree tapping demonstrations, Civil War re-enactments, pony rides, 19th century arts/crafts. 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Free. 724-378-1701.

• Want more maple? See Thursday's Food & Flavor section and for more coverage and recipes.

First Published March 13, 2011 5:00 AM


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