There are around 10 species of maple tree native to Canada and at least one type is said to grow in every province. The tree that the maple leaf on Canada’s flag is modeled after is a Sugar Maple. These are beautiful trees, especially in the fall when the leaves become brilliant shades of orange and red. In the forest, a Sugar Maple may grow to 45 metres, with a trunk clear of branches half way up. Its wood is extremely strong and durable, especially the sap wood which lies just inside the outer layer of bark. It can produce wood with beautiful grains for furniture or floors that only becomes smoother and more beautiful with use.
Spring is a special time of year in Canada because this is when the trees that have been sleeping all winter start to wake up! During the summer when the leaves could make lots of tree food, the trees stored extra food away in the layer under their bark. This has been frozen all winter. But now, the sunshine during the day warms up the branches and the layers underneath and the tree food called sap starts to flow again, up and down the tree. It flows to all the little buds and starts to wake them up and make them start growing into leaves and flowers.
The maple tree is a special kind of tree that has very sweet sap, especially the Sugar Maple. Long ago, the Indians found out that they could make the sap into sugar. One story tells about a man named Woksis. He crawled out of his lodge one crisp spring day on his way to go hunting. He pulled his hatchet out of the maple tree where he had thrust it the night before. This had made a hole in the tree, but Woksis didn’t notice and went off hunting. At the bottom of the tree and leaning up against it was a birchbark basket. All morning the tree dripped into it, until when Woksis’ wife went to make dinner there was a basketful of what she thought was water. She used it to make her stew. Later that evening, when she and Woksis were having dinner, Woksis said “This stew is delicious. It tastes sweet!” And Woksis was right. After boiling all afternoon, the sap in the stew had become some tasty maple syrup.
The Indian method was to cut a gash in the tree when the days began to get warmer, and slide in a hollow reed or funnel of bark. The sap dripped into a bark bowl and when full was emptied into a larger vessel or hollowed out tree trunk. The sap was concentrated by allowing it to freeze and taking off the ice, or by dropping hot stones into it until it boiled down. Since it takes about 40 L of sap to make 1 L of syrup, this can take a while.
Today maple syrup producers have refined the process a great deal. However, there are only a few weeks when the sap is sweet enough and that is when the trees first start to wake up. And that is why maple syrup is only made in the spring.
PROJECT: Find a maple tree near you — what kind is it? The maples that are native to Canada are: Sugar, Black, Silver, Big Leaf, Red, Mountain, Striped, Douglas, Vine and the Manitoba. My favourite is the Big Leaf maple which grows in British Columbia. The biggest leaf we found was 40 cm (16 in) across!
FIELD TRIP: If you live near a maple syrup farm, go visit them in the spring when they are in the heat of production. Quite often they are open at other times of the year as well for hiking or maybe even pancakes and maple syrup. The following are two places I have been and recommend: Sugar Moon Farm and Acadian Maple Products both in Nova Scotia. If you are far from maple syrup country, make your own pancakes and buy some maple syrup to try!
BOOKS: At Grandpa’s Sugar Bush, by Margaret Carney, Kids Can Press, 1997 (picture book); Maple Syrup Season, by Ann Purmell, Holiday House, 2008 (picture book).