(Maple) Sap on the Rise
Festivals celebrate, teach about syrup rituals
Photos courtesy Kline Creek Farm
When visitors drive the main road to North Park Village Nature Center (ChicagoParkDistrict.com/parks-facilities/north-park-village-nature-center) in March, they know it’s maple tree tapping time. “That’s when they see jugs hanging from spigots on trees,” says Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro, the center’s director. By mid-February, she, staff and volunteers start tapping maple trees at the center to boil down to syrup to prepare for a free festival on March 23 and 24. Like other nature centers, North Park heralds spring with events that include hands-on tree-tapping and maple syrup-making demonstrations, as well as providing
samples of real syrup.
Historical accounts show the indigenous peoples of what is now southeastern Canada and the New England states tapped sugar maple trees to create syrup, says Dennis Buck, heritage interpreter at Kline Creek Farm (DupageForest.org/kline-creek-farm), in West Chicago. “It’s a technique white settlers learned from Native Americans.” The farm offers free maple sugaring programs Thursday through Sunday afternoons throughout March.
All trees produce sap, but sugar maples produce sap with the highest sugar content. In winter, when the temperatures get above freezing during the day and then dip below freezing at night, the sap starts rising, seemingly defying gravity. The sap contains mostly water, minerals and some sugar that feeds the tree during the growing season. When the leaves fall in autumn, the tree sends the sap to the ground. In late winter, the sap flows back up the tree to start a new season of growing.
“I like to give this analogy: When it gets cold, wood contracts. It’s like squeezing a sponge and sending moisture down,” Buck explains. “When it gets warm, the wood expands, causing the sap to get sucked back up the tree.” Throughout March, he shows visitors how trees were tapped for sap in the 1890s by using a hand drill to make an inch-deep hole in the tree. “If the sap is flowing, you see it right away.”
Afterward, a spile, or small metal spigot, is placed into the hole to plug it. The spile has an attachment upon which a bucket that captures the sap can be placed. Buck lets visitors put a finger under the spile to taste the sap, which is mostly water. “Kids seem to be able to taste the sweetness better than adults,” he says.
It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, which is why it’s more expensive than the syrup made of corn. “I have a lot of visitors who were raised on Mrs. Butterworth, a corn-based syrup that is sweeter and thicker,” Buck says. “Real maple syrup is thinner and has a unique flavor.” At Kline Creek Farm, visitors learn to tap a tree, taste the sap and see the large kettles in which the sap is boiled, finally tasting the syrup at the end.
At the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area (lcfpd.org/ryerson), in Riverwoods, which offers maple syrup hikes in mid-March, recycled wood is used as a source of fire to cook the sap in a large evaporator, says Jan Berlinghof, Lake County Forest Preserve District environmental educator. “It could take eight to 10 hours to get the syrup at the right consistency,” she notes. “We do it the old-fashioned way.”
At North Park Village Nature Center, volunteers and staff tap maple trees in a grove they call the sugar bush before the March festival. At least 1,500 visitors attend the festival, says Alanis-Ribeiro. “Visitors learn that these are our natural lands and how we use them as resources, and why it’s important to take care of trees,” she says. “The festival is a way for people to connect with the trees.”
At the festival, storytellers share folklore and Native American legends about native animals and making food. “Storytelling is a method of learning,” Alanis-Ribeiro says. “The children really like it. Children also can participate in crafts such as making bling out of buckthorn at the festival.
Nature centers are careful not to harm the trees when tapping. “My goal isn’t to produce a lot of syrup, but to teach people how it’s made,” Buck says. How much he gets made each year depends on the weather. “Very frequently, I’ll start in the morning and I won’t have maple syrup until well in the afternoon. It’s worth the wait. I prefer real maple syrup.”
Sheryl DeVore writes nature and science articles for national and regional publications. Contact her at Sheryl.Devore@comcast.net.
Sweet Festivals: Taste and Learn
Learn to tap trees for sap, taste maple syrup and hike in the woods during annual maple sugar festivals. Registration and fees are required for some and a few include breakfast. Some are free, walk-in programs and feature storytelling, crafts and other activities.
March 1-31, Thursdays through Sundays
Maple Sugaring, 1 to 4 p.m. Kline Creek Farm, 1N600 County Farm Road, West Chicago. Learn how sap becomes syrup, tap a tree with tools from the 1890s and taste the sweet stuff. Free. 630-876-5900. DupageForest.org/kline-creek-farm.
Farm to Table: Maple Syrup and Corn Cakes, 12:30 to 2 p.m. Kline Creek Farm, 1N600 County Farm Road, West Chicago. Learn how maple syrup is made; taste syrups from the Great Lakes region poured over homemade corn cakes. $15 per person, ages 18 and up. Registration required. 630-876-5900. DupageForest.org/kline-creek-farm.
March 2, 3, 9 and 10
McHenry County Conservation District Festival of the Sugar Maples, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Coral Woods Conservation Area, 7400 Somerset, Marengo. Free. Hear how maple syrup was made hundreds of years ago; view syrup being made at the evaporator house and get a taste. 815-479-5779. mccdistrict.org.
March 9, 10, 16, 17, 23 and 24
Maple Syrup Hikes, Noon to 2 p.m. Ryerson Woods, 21950 Riverwoods Road, Riverwoods. Educational hikes, ending with a tasting, run every half-hour. Registration required. $6 for all ages, children ages 3 and younger free. 857-968-3321. lcfpd.org/maple-syrup-hikes.
Get Sticky: Maple Syrup Day, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center, 3609 Spring Road, Oak Brook. Seventy-five minute tours begin every 35 minutes with tastings along the way. $10 per person. Registration required. 630- 850-8110. DupageForest.org/calendar-of-events/fullersburg-woods#/?i=1.
March 16 and 17
Sugar Bush Fair, 9 a.m. to noon. Vera Meineke Nature Center, 1111 E. Schaumburg Road, Schaumburg. Maple syrup making demonstrations, hay rides and puppet show are free. Breakfast at Merkle Cabin costs $4.50 to $8. Syrup and other items will be sold. 847-985-2100. ParkFun.com/spring-valley.
March 16 and 17
Simply Sweet Family Hike, 1-3:30 p.m. Thornhill Center, Morton Arboretum, 4100 Ill. Route 53, Lisle. Families hike through woods to learn about maple tree tapping. Event includes maple syrup samples and crafts. $16 to $19 per person. Registration required. 630-719-2468; MortonArb.org/courses/simply-sweet-family-hike.
Annual Maple Syrup Festival, 11a.m. to 3 p.m. River Trail Nature Center, 3120 Milwaukee Avenue, Northbrook. Free. Learn about making maple syrup and participate in games and crafts.
Maple Fest, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Red Oak Nature Center, 2343 South River Street, Batavia. Hike through the woods to learn about sap harvesting and taste some maple syrup. Maple-themed treats, hot beverages, syrup from Vermont and maple-flavored donuts will be sold. Free. 630-897-1808. FoxValleyParkDistrict.org/sweet-saturday-red-oak-nature-center-hosts-free-maple-fest-march-18.
March 23 and 24
Maple Syrup Festival, 10 a.m. to 3p.m. North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski Road, Chicago. Observe sap collecting and syrup making; listen to stories; make crafts and taste syrup. Free. 312-744-5472. ChicagoParkDistrict.com/parks-facilities/north-park-village-nature-center.