Sugar maple trees reign in glory this weekend as we pour their golden syrup on pancakes. But you may be surprised at some other trees in your back yard that can yield syrup, too — even an invasive one.
We’ll gather to watch as the lifeblood of certain trees is carefully drawn and boiled down to a dense syrup. At Bendix Woods, it will come from the native sugar maple and the similar black maple trees — hailed among maple species for their high sugar content.
Every tree has sap that you can tap. The question is: What can you eat?
Sap from pine trees is used to make turpentine. And sap from cherry trees produces a bitter syrup, owing to trace amounts of cyanide, Nate Fuller, director of Sarett Nature Center in Benton Harbor, says.
Apparently, it’s one of those things you’d have to consume in huge quantities to get sick. Still, it tastes bad. Fuller says that when you snap a cherry twig, it gives off a bitter almond smell as a sign of the cyanide.
“It’s nature’s way of saying, ‘Don’t eat this,’” he says.
Sarett taps silver and red maples, the species mostly found there.
To make syrup, you can also tap the boxelder, known as ash-leaf maple, which is a species of maple trees. Resources online suggest that you can tap sycamores, butternut and birch trees for edible sugar, as Native Americans had done, among other species.
Retired naturalist Scott Beam says one tree-tapping family tells him that sap from black walnut trees turns into a nutty-flavored syrup. Bendix Woods takes donations of sap from various maple trees that it cooks down in its sugar shack. But the park doesn’t accept black walnut sap, naturalist Amal Farrough says, because of the pectin content, which requires a different system for cooking.
Purely in the name of science, someone had asked, and so I posed a question at the IN Nature Facebook group: Has anyone had experience tapping invasive Norway maple trees? Most responses alerted me to the reality that Norway maples aren’t as productive. One quoted an article from Michigan State University stating that Norway maples exude a milky sap and concluding that they’re not fit for tapping.
But another person in that group tapped a Norway maple last year and yielded four cups of syrup, describing a “sweet and buttery” flavor.
In fact, Fuller says that the sap runs clear in the non-leafy tapping season. He says a friend in Massachusetts compared Norway maple syrup’s taste to graham crackers.
In 2010, an urban fruit picking and sharing group in Toronto, Canada, sought to tap Norway maples in the city because they were so abundant.
Still, serious tappers and maple growers don’t bother with this species, for good reason. You may have to boil as much as 50% more sap than a sugar maple to make syrup. That depends, though, on a tree’s sugar content, which can also be influenced by the time of day, how much sunlight a tree gets and how wide of a leafy crown it has. A grower in Greencastle, Ind., Arthur Harris, says most trees’ sugar content is high early in the season, then wanes. Boxelders, though, start low and end high.
Beam, who for 30-plus years had run the sugar bush at Maplewood Nature Center in LaGrange, Ind., says the Norway maple in his own yard failed him.
“I put a bucket on it once and didn’t get anything,” he says. “It probably depends on when it flows.”
One strike against this species is that they are among the first ones to break open their buds and to spread their light-green blossoms. For all maples, that’s when their sap turns bitter, which immediately ends the syrup season. So there you go: less time to make syrup.
But the Norway maples’ early spring blooming also points to why they’re such a headache for conservationists. It’s one of the ways that they aggressively outcompete native species of trees, leading them to spread as you see along important wildlife corridors like the St. Joseph River. Norway maples line the Riverside Trail near and south of Pinhook Park, among other South Bend park properties. This tree also releases toxins that make it harder for native species to spread and grow.
The Norway maple came from Europe, planted along roads and parkways across North America because it was seen as handsome and disease resistant. In recent decades, it has spread into nearby woodlots. It is among the 47 species of invasive plants that South Bend’s city council voted last year to ban — plants that couldn’t be sold or introduced — which added on to the state’s ban on 44 other invasive species. The city’s ban came about through efforts by the city’s Ecological Advocacy Committee.
That’s a lot to chew on with your pancakes. It points us back to native species that do the best job at keeping us fed or, in wildflower season, at helping the pollinating insects that enable our crops to grow.
So far, recent weeks have had a good mix of daily above- and below-freezing temperatures, which are needed to pump sap from the trees, although this week’s weather seems to stay above freezing.
Weather and other fickle factors make each season unique. Beam avoids making predictions on how productive each maple season will be. He waits for results until it’s over. And in the name of science, he quips, “I’m never wrong.”
Tree tapping tips
Link to these resources in this column online.
• The basics: St. Joseph County Parks provides a simple brochure on tapping backyard trees and making syrup.
• Deeper dive: Learn lots more about some native Indiana trees through a crowd-sourced guide that includes boxelder, black walnut, and sugar, red and silver maples.
• Norway maple: The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture provides photos and descriptions to identify this tree.
Locally made maple syrup will be sold at each of these fests.
• Sugar Camp Days at Bendix Woods County Park: On Timothy Road south of U.S. 20 and eight miles west of the U.S. 31 bypass, New Carlisle. 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 19-20. Lions Club pancake and sausage breakfast from 8 a.m. to noon both days; $7 per person. Admission is $8 per vehicle. With demonstrations of modern and traditional ways of making syrup, walking tours of the sugar bush, horse-drawn wagon rides, harnessed tree climbs for kids, blacksmith demonstrations, ice carvings, historical crafters and sales of foods made with maple syrup, including kettle corn, cotton candy, hot dogs and baked goods. (sjcparks.org, 574-654-3155)
• Maple Row Sugarhouse: 12646 Born St., Jones. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays March 19-20 and March 26-27. With sugarhouse tours, pancake and sausage breakfast, maple lunch, petting farm, living history re-enactment, French colonial sugar camp and kids activities. There also will be demonstrations, wagon rides, puppet shows and other entertainment scheduled. Free admission. (michiganmaplefestival.com, 269-350-3553)
• Maple Wood Nature Center: 4550 E. County Road 100 South, LaGrange, Ind. 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 19-20. Lions Club pancake breakfast from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; cost is $9 per person and $4 for ages 4-10. Free tours of sugar shack, horse-drawn wagon rides and Roz Puppets shows all day. Free admission and parking. (lagrangecountyparks.org, 260-854-2225)
Follow Outdoor Adventures columnist Joseph Dits on Facebook at SBTOutdoorAdventures. Contact him at 574-235-6158 or email@example.com.