This winter, enjoy a New England “sugar bush” experience right in your own Missouri backyard or woodlot. Missouri, too, has sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum), which many Northeasterners use for making delicious maple syrup and sugar.
Please Don’t Plant Sugar Maples
Unfortunately, because sugar maples create and tolerate dense shade that makes growth for more beneficial oak and hickory species difficult, they aren’t good trees for wildlife or forest diversity. While we don’t recommend planting sugar maple trees on your lands, you can take sweet advantage of those you already have.
Why tap sugar maple trees and how do I find them?
You can tap almost any deciduous (broad leaves, not pine needles) tree in the late winter to collect sap for making syrup and sugar. However, sugar maple tree sap has the highest sugar content, around 3 percent. While this seems low, most other trees have only 1 percent or even less. Forty gallons of sugar maple sap will produce one gallon of syrup. Compare that to walnut trees, which take eighty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup!
Sugar maple trees typically grow in forested uplands, but you can also find them in lowlands next to creeks or even in your own backyard. You can identify sugar maple trees by their opposite branching and bark that peels away vertically, exposing a tan or pink color underneath. Check the sugar maple online field guide entry (listed under “Related Information” below) for more identification details.
Don’t Collect Sap on MDC conservation areas!
Collecting tree sap of any kind is not allowed on MDC conservation areas (state-owned public land). Please collect sap on your own land or that of other private landowners who have permitted you to tap their trees.
What size tree should I tap?
Once you find your sugar maple tree, make sure it’s at least ten inches in diameter at breast height (about 4 feet above the ground) before you tap it. If it’s any smaller, you could harm or even kill the tree. A single large tree can take up to three taps (never more than three in one tree), but over-tapping can harm the tree. It’s estimated that just one tap will produce the greatest results without harming the tree.
When should I start tapping?
Be sure to wait until the temperature stays consistently below freezing (32 F) at night and above freezing during the day. This is when the sap flows. If you tap too early in the season, the hole will seal up and will need to be drilled again. The best time to tap for most of Missouri is usually middle to late January or early February.
What tools do I need and where can I get them?
* A tap or spile (a spigot used for taking sap from a tree). You can buy or make your tap from anything that fits tight and directs sap into a bucket. Consider a short length of PVC pipe, a piece of hose or even a piece of broom handle with a hole drilled through the length of it.
* A drill. Use a battery-powered drill and a bit that matches the size of your tap or spile for a tight fit. Drill about 1-1/2 to 2 inches into the xylem (water carrying layer of wood) of the tree. Smaller holes and taps work just as well as larger, and they heal faster.
* Something to catch the sap in. Milk jugs, camping water jugs or buckets from a home improvement store work well.
* To find readymade supplies, search “maple sugar supplies” or “maple sugar suppliers” on the Internet.
How often should I check my buckets?
This depends on the weather and the size of your bucket. In general, the greater the difference between day and nighttime temperatures, the greater the sap flow.
* If you have a smaller bucket (say one- or two-gallon size), you may need to check and empty it several times a day during high sap flow.
* A three-gallon bucket will accommodate a single day of good flow, is manageable and not too heavy on the tree.
* In general, if the temperature doesn’t warm above freezing, you get the day off from collecting.
How do I make syrup?
Making syrup is a piece of cake … or pancake, that is! All you do is heat the sap and let evaporation do all the work.
* As the water evaporates, the sugar remains and becomes more and more concentrated.
* Once your water-and-sugar mix nears 67 percent sugar and 33 percent water, the temperature will reach 219 F. Congratulations, you’ve just reached the syrup stage!
* Don’t forget to filter! Pour your hot syrup through cheesecloths or commercial filters to remove “niter” (potassium nitrate) and the other minerals in tree sap that can make syrup taste bad and are not healthy for small children.
How should I store my syrup?
We recommend canning your syrup for a shelf life of one year or more. Otherwise, use up your syrup soon after finishing and keep leftovers in the refrigerator. If you leave it out too long, mold may develop. Some people will reheat moldy syrup, filter out the mold, add a little water and then refinish with boiling and evaporation to make it edible again.
Why not just buy maple syrup?
You can buy maple syrup (the lighter the flavor and color, the higher the price) at most grocery stores. But anyone can go out and buy maple syrup. Only the dedicated few can claim the title of “maple sugar farmer.” Step up and take the challenge! Get outdoors with your family and friends this winter to take part in history, conservation and natural food production. The sweet reward is worth it.