Turn Sugar Tree Sap Into Syrup

Making syrup at home is easy with the right tree sap.

| March/April 2013

Most folks have heard of maple syrup, and in some areas pecan syrup is still fairly common. But today few people are aware that walnuts, hickories, sweet birches and even sycamores can produce similar products. Only a few old-timers and wild-food enthusiasts still go the extra mile and further process the syrups into sugars, but during much of our country’s history, sugaring produced an important part of the family food supply. For the curious and would-be self-reliant, it still can.

Meet the sugar trees with the best tree sap

Any maple large enough to tap will produce syrup and sugar. Historically, folks used all native maples to some extent. Today, most maple syrup comes from the sugar maple, the closely related black maple (now usually regarded as a variant of the sugar maple), and the box elder or ash-leaved maple (heavily used in Canada). Maple sap is usually about 2.5 percent sugar. However, maple saps with a sugar content of 5 percent or more are not uncommon, and the record for sugar content is about 9 percent.

In general, the saps of trees with large crowns, such as lawn trees, will exhibit higher sugar content than that of forest-grown trees. Considerable variation in sugar content and sap production is found among species and individuals within species. Seasonal characteristics also can affect the amount and quality of sap produced by an individual tree from year to year.

Sugar maples have a relatively high average sugar content in their sap. But the closely related black, southern sugar (also known as Florida or hammock maple) and big tooth maples are at about the same level. Box elder, red maple, plane tree maple and big leaf maple are close behind.

Many old-timers considered the silver maple a poor producer or, at least, a producer of inferior products with an off flavor. Most of the silver maples I’ve tapped were lawn trees, and I’ve found them to be competitive with any of the others.

On average, the highest sugar levels are found in Norway maples, an imported species. This is probably because in North America they are used mostly as specimen trees, but it is still a good showing for a tree that has been dismissed by some as not worth using.

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