By Charles L. Flint and Andrew Flint
American Indians and Maple Sugar
For centuries, Native Americans living in the Northeast tapped maple trees for their sugar-rich sap by gashing into the bark with axes and tomahawks. These cuts left V-shaped openings hewn out of the tree’s vascular tissue, what we now call “taps”, under which large birch bark bowls would be placed to collect the slow but steady drip of clear sap. We can tell you from experience that this sap is like water aside from its subtly sweet, refreshing taste and faint gesture toward amber color, which enters the visible spectrum only in large collections.
Early Native Americans poured the sap into hollowed birch bark logs or clay kettles, dropping hot rocks into the cooking vats until most of the water was boiled away. Later Native Americans poured sap into clay or iron kettles held over campfires, adding sap as it boiled down until the mixture reached their desired consistency. We’re still running with this method, allowing a steady cooking temperature as the ever-thickening sap is rendered into syrup.
Some Native American groups referred to our period of Spring as “sugar month” or “maple moon.” The significance of this association—maple sugar linked with this portion of the calendrical year—makes sense given the sap’s dietary significance to some Native American groups. In fact, maple sugar (called Sinzibuckwud by Algonquins, meaning “drawn from the wood”) is said to have comprised 12% of the diet of some Native Americans.
This source of uniquely flavored sugary water was native to the woods of a region of our modern map stretching from New England and southern Quebec out to southern Ontario and Minnesota, and all the way down to Missouri and Tennessee on the West side and to Virginia and Maryland on the East. The sap’s significance as a dietary staple was reflected in the traditional beliefs and legends of numerous indigenous groups throughout the region.
Nanabozho, the spirit serving as a trickster hero, is in many traditional Anishinaabe origin stories. After his grandmother Nikomis tapped a maple tree to collect sap, Nanabozho was impressed by the water’s sweetness. He felt that humans would get lazy if all they had to do was to poke the tree to collect this nectar, so he grabbed a bucket of water, climbed the tree, and poured the water into the center of the tree. This diluted the ambrosial sap to a watery mixture suspending just one or two percent sugar, thus requiring people to labor over great amounts of this liquid to create a concentrated and preserved maple syrup or sugar product.
A legend of the Iroquois of America’s Northeast says that one of their youths watched a squirrel run up a maple tree and bite off a twig and then lick sap off the twig’s broken end. When the Iroquois youth tried the same, he found the sap was sweet. Red squirrels have been observed running around from maple tree to maple tree nipping and creating deep wounds. Once the wounds have exuded some sap and it is able to dry, the squirrels return and eat freshly formed sugar crystals.
Another traditional Iroquois story tells of a chief who yanked his hatchet out of the maple tree where he’d left it and set off for a day of hunting. He didn’t notice the deep gash his blade had left in the tree, but a colorless liquid had trickled from it all day and collected in a birch bark bowl that leaned against the tree. The next day, his wife took notice of the full bowl and, thinking it was water, used it to cook a venison stew. This story addresses maple curing, a common method of meat preservation practiced by Anishinaabe. Some medicines made from bitter plants were also sweetened with the local syrup to make them more appealing to kids.
The Pilgrims and Maple Trees
The earliest Pilgrims carved troughs, spouts, and taps or spiles out of hard wood like ash or basswood. The Pilgrims cut trees and lumber in the late fall or winter, sawed trunks to custom length, split them, and hollowed sections of theser halves into shallow troughs with axes and adzes. Basswood or ash trees were preferred for their tendency to split in half and quality for woodworking.
In the early spring, the hollowed troughs were stood on end against sugar maples trees with the cut side against the tree. Then these troughs only had to be put into position under the tap-hole when the time was right. Later, small holes were drilled for carved wooden taps and the hooks to hold buckets. Colonists called maple syrup Indian molasses, and the sugar Indian sugar. They also called the process of making maple syrup sugaring down.
How To Tap Sugar Maple Trees
Maple sugar season occurs during the early spring—March and April—when it is freezing during the night and above 0 degrees Celsius during the day. It’s very important that freezing takes place during the night; otherwise, no sap will flow from the tree. To make maple syrup, you must recuperate the water circulating between the wood and the bark. If you’d like to make sugar from your trees, look for sugar maples with full, healthy crowns and gather:
- Drill with a 7/16″ bit
- Metal or wood spout (spile) for each tap-hole
- Liquid collection container such as a metal or wood bucket
- Larger container for the storage of sap
- Large, flat pan for boiling down the sap (evaporator)
A sugar maple tree must be at least 10 inches in diameter to install one tap. One more tap may be installed for each additional five inches.
Place new holes six inches above or below and two inches to one side of any old tap holes. Recently used tap holes require two or three years to heal. Drill fresh holes two to three inches deep at a slight upward angle, which helps the sap run out more easily. Hang a bucket or other container to collect the sap as it trickles out all day, preferably with a cover to keep insects and plant matter from getting stuck in the liquid.
A single tap will generally produce 20 to 25 gallons of sap per season. It must be collected several times daily from the buckets hanging under each tap and moved to the cooking facility and transferred into a larger container to be boiled down by evaporation. Boiling removes the water and leaves flavorful sugars. The ideal temperature for boiling maple sap into syrup is 219.5 °F, about seven degrees higher than the boiling point of water.
Expect 10 gallons of sap to produce one quart of syrup once you’ve cooked it down to a satisfying thickness and darkness. The sap is about two percent sugar, weighs about eight and once third pounds to the gallon, and is not sticky. Once this is converted into syrup, it is 66.9% sugar, weighs 11 pounds per gallon, and is quite sticky. This syrup generally contains about 40 calories per tablespoon and no fat.
We live in the beautiful Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, and many years ago, while driving with my children (Sydney was 8, Andrew was 10 then), they asked why buckets were hanging from passing trees. I told them that someone was collecting sap to make maple syrup. They asked, “How is this done?” I thought for a minute and then said, “Well, I will show you. Would you two like to make maple syrup with me?” “Yes!” they said. “Let’s do it!”
We had to act quickly because the sap runs for a very short period of time each spring. We went out with a hand drill and tapped about 20 holes in 10 large maple trees. I showed the kids how to hammer in the taps lightly and hang the collection bottles. They became quite excited, because the sap started to run right away. Of course, they tasted it and liked its sweet flavor.
I told them that their job was to collect the sap three times a day, emptying the bottles into five gallon buckets using our wheelbarrow to transport them. I duct-taped cheesecloth to a homemade metal ring and placed it on the top of the 50-gallon cans to catch some of the debris as the children poured it in. We then used a coffee can to dip into the sap vat to keep the evaporator pans full. The method we used was most likely the same as that which the American Indians did, which was to keep adding the sap to the pans as the mixture boiled down. We did this until the sap was used up.
Each of us took turns watching and adding sap and constantly skimming off the debris that rose from the simmering liquid. As it boiled down further, it became thicker and much darker. Then, close to the end, I used my candy thermometer to make sure it would not burn; the proper density of maple syrup will be reached at 218 degrees F.
I have to share an interesting story about a family of farmers I met in Hinsdale, MA. They told me that their family had lived on and worked the same land since the 1760s. I told them that they had so many old and beautiful maple trees and asked if they still make maple syrup. They said that they have never tapped any of the trees on their property because their first ancestor didn’t believe in it. He felt it was like taking the blood from Mother Nature’s trees.