St. Louis — Anyone who thinks trees are sleeping on the job during winter might be surprised to learn that they’re actually busy producing one of nature’s most delicious treats.
For about six weeks, from mid-January to the end of February, nature cooks up its own sweet delights within sugar maple trees as the sap begins to flow, ready to be tapped for making sugar and syrup. The Maple Sugar Festival at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Rockwoods Reservation offers visitors the chance to discover nature at its most delicious.
The 2013 Maple Sugar Festival takes place Saturday, Feb. 2, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and is open to the whole family at no cost.
“The Rockwoods Maple Sugar Festival is an excellent opportunity for families to break free of cabin fever and experience nature at its finest,” said MDC Interpretive Center Manager Kevin McCarthy. “They'll learn skills to collect, boil and create their own maple syrup or sugar, and still have several weeks of the season to try it out.”
Visitors will see firsthand how Native Americans and early settlers harvested the sap—and boiled it down over an open fire to create sugar and syrup. Guided hikes will demonstrate how to identify and tap sugar maple trees.
Tasting the sugar and syrup is one of the most popular attractions. Kids will also delight in trying a pioneer favorite—sugar on snow, a toffee-like treat created when warm maple sap mixes with the cold snow.
The art of maple sugaring was discovered by Native Americans, who would hack large gashes in the trees to collect sap and set up “sugar camps” near a stand of sugar maples each year to make sugar. Sugar maple sap has the highest sugar content – about 3 percent – and produces the most sugar per gallon of sap collected. Still, it takes 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to yield one gallon of syrup.
Native Americans taught the process to early colonists. The settlers eventually began drilling small holes in the trees and placing hollow taps to draw the sap into wooden buckets, which better protected the trees. Back at the “sugar shed”, the sap was boiled down in large copper pots over an open fire. It’s a slow process and lots of hard work, requiring almost 40 hours of boiling to produce just one gallon of syrup.
Depending on how long the sap is boiled, a variety of products can be made, from hard sugar to syrup. The most common product was maple sugar blocks, because the sugar could be shaved off and used all year – or even traded for other goods. By 1890, cane sugar became cheaper to import as a sweetener so maple sugar production shifted to syrup instead.
In Missouri, February is prime maple sugaring season because it produces the right weather conditions. According to McCarthy, “February has the perfect combination of below freezing temperatures at night and above freezing temperatures during the day that causes the sap to ‘flow’."
The greater the night-to-day temperature difference, the more the sap flows. But come March, leaves and seeds open on the trees and the sap changes, calling an end the sugar production season.
There’s no denying the taste of maple sugar is a delight, but it also represents sweet success when it comes to living in harmony with nature.
“Conservation means smart use,” said McCarthy. “Maple sugaring is a prime example of this smart use because trees are not harmed, they can be tapped year after year, and only a small amount of sap is taken.”
The Conservation Department’s Rockwoods Reservation is located in Wildwood at 2751 Glencoe Road, off Highway 109 between I-44 and Highway 100. For additional information on the Maple Sugar Festival call 636-458-2236.
To learn more about backyard maple sugaring, including step-by-step instructions, see the Department of Conservation’s maple sugaring webpage at mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/how/maple-sugaring.