Sunday, March 16, 2014

Grand Rapids, Michigan - Blandford Nature Center: The Journey of Sugar Maple Sap to Maple Syrup

Around this time a year ago my kiddos and I visited my grandparents.  They live in a small town that has Sugar Maple tress lining the streets.  I remember as a kid my grandfather hanging buckets from the trees in his yard to gather sap.  The sap would later be turned into maple syrup.  Well, during this visit my kiddos and I noticed that all the sugar maple trees in the village had buckets gathering the sap.  My grandfather explained to us that a local maple syrup company was no longer able to tap trees in an area they used in the past.  So, they went around and asked all the neighbors for permission to tap their trees.  It was amazing to see buckets, street after street, gathering sap.  While visiting my grandparents, we witnessed the company gathering the sap from the trees.  It turned out that it was the end of the season.  My grandfather told us a little about the maple syrup making process and said that some times they let people visit to see the process at work.  So, I was on a mission to find a place for my kiddos to see this the next season!

Where could a I go to have a kid-friendly, educational, maple syrup experience?  I did some research and found Blandford Nature Center.  I had been there before for another program.  I was really glad to see that they could help me with this adventure!  For those that live locally, they do have a festival that you can participate in.  We were not able to attend the festival but luckily they offered just the educational piece the weekend before.

Sugar maple trees grow in North America.

The trees are identified by the leaves (have 5 points like your hand),

The Sugar Maple leaf is on the Canadian flag.

the bark (I didn't really figure this out while there),

and the branches (branches grow in pairs across from each other called "opposite branching" - I saw a few sugar maple trees and I did not recognize this pattern).

I am clearly not a Sugar Maple tree expert when it comes to identifying them ;-)

Sugar Maple trees store sap in "pockets" under the bark.  During the right conditions (before spring) the sap starts to flow up and down the tree to "give it energy and wake it up".  We learned a lot about this during the introduction of the program (before we went outside for the hands on tour).

Most maple trees are about 40 years old and at least 12 inches in diameter before they are tapped.

The maple sap season lasts about 4-6 weeks, but the sap flows heaviest for 10-20 days.  Ideal weather  would be freezing at night at warm during the day.  Do not tap after the sap has reached the buds - it is too late.  You can tell this has happened when the buds start to open.

Measure tree to see how wide it is.  The wider the tree the more taps you can add.   There really isn't a benefit to more than 3 taps.

This is a test tree for class purposes - obviously it will not provide any sap ;-)

Drill a hole about 3/8 inches in diameter,

tap in a spile (metal spout),

and then hang a bucket to catch the dripping sap.

Large maple syrup producers now use tubes to draw the sap from the tree to the sugarhouse (where the sap is boiled down to syrup).

Put a metal cover over the bucket to keep water out (like rain water and snow).

Each hole/tap will give about 10 gallons of sap.

Approximately 40 gallons sap will provide 1 gallon finished maple syrup

Maple sap looks just like water and has a slightly sweet taste.

Tasting the sap!

The sap will be strained before boiling to get any extra things out (bugs, twigs, ...)

One of the first steps is to boil off the water.  A Hydrometer is floated in the sap to find the exact sugar content.  Coming from the tree, maple sap is about 98% water and 2% sugar.  An evaporator (made of one or more pans that sits on a firebox) is used to boil down the sap into maple syrup.

Steam from the boiling syrup escapes through a vent in the roof of the sugarhouse.  If they didn't have vent for steam to escape it would cause condensations in the house (it would start "raining" inside).

Front of Sugarhouse.

Back/side view of the sugarhouse.  The top peak is where the steam escapes from the building.

The sap becomes maple syrup when it reaches 7.5 degrees above the boiling point of water and is 67% sugar.  Then it is filtered and ready to bottle.  Take about 8 hours of boiling to turn into syrup.  Less with newer technology.

Strain again after boiling to get any other things out (like sand).

This picture shows the inside of a strain bucket, a large 40 gallon bucket (the amount of sap you start with), and a small 1 gallon bucket (the amount of syrup you get from 40 gallons of sap). 

Maple syrup has no fat or proteins but it is a good sours of calcium, iron and thiamine.

Next, it was time to learn a little history about maple syrup.

An example of an native American house.  The domed hut was better for the cold weather.

Inside:  Fire pit, cooking tools, open hole in top to let smoke out.
Of course they didn't have benches like this ;-)

An example of a way the sap was cooked in the early days.
Side note:  Did you know that cast iron usually get hot only where the food is?  You could easily touch the top of this pot but the exterior bottom (where the sap is inside) was very hot!!

Kids were responsible to gather the sap.

Native Americans made sugar rocks and pounded them into granulated/sand sugar.  These days you can fast this sugar via pure maple sugar candy - like a sugar cube but with the maple flavor.


  • Many of you know that you can tell the age of a tree if you look at the rings in the trunk (you would have to cut the tree down to see this).  But did you know that the width of each ring will tell you how good the growing conditions were for that year?  The wider the space between rings - the better the year.  If the rings are close together it show less growth for the year (a bad year).
Other things you can do at Blandford Nature Center:

Gift shop

Maple items in the gift shop.

I really liked this coloring book.  I has all the facts that we learned during our tour.

Owls outside.

Owl inside


More animals.

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