Of Grandfathers and Pancakes: The Sugar Maple – Amanda Hunt

Me and my sister with my grandfather

As a young girl, I often helped my grandfather (a retired urban forester) make maple syrup. His maple syrup production happened on a very small-scale and usually only provided enough for him and my grandmother. However, I found it fascinating that he could make such a delicious syrup from the sugar maples along his street, in nearby parks, etc. One of the reasons for his relatively limited output is the large quantity of sap needed to make even a small amount of syrup; approximately forty gallons of sap are required to extract one gallon of maple syrup.[1]  While I chose to research this tree because of the sugary maple syrup that can be made from its sap, there are many other aspects of the sugar maple that can be useful to humans including its beautiful fall foliage, timber, and emblematic status.

Acer saccharum Marshall (Sapindaceae) which is commonly known as the sugar maple is native to eastern Canada along with the northeastern and central parts of the US.[2] This tree can grow to 40-80 feet high with a crown of branches spreading 30-60 ft. [2] Healthy sugar maples can live to be over 400 years old! [3] The sugar maple flowers in early spring but only once the tree has reached 10-15 years of age; these flowers are green, drooping, and relatively small. [3] The fruit of the maple tree is a pair of winged seeds called a samara; in order for the seed coating to break down, there must be 90 days of temperatures below 0oF. [3] The leaves of the sugar maple are deciduous and have five palmate lobes; it is common for one sugar maple tree to have leaves of many different colors ranging from yellow to orange to bright red. [3] This wide variety of fall color explains why many sugar maples are planted for ornamental reasons as well as for syrup production.

It is relatively well-established that Native Americans were quite proficient at making maple syrup and maple sugar when the European colonists arrived. While the exact discovery of the heating process needed to transform sap into syrup or sugar is not known, there are several legends explaining this occurrence. One Iroquois legend involves the chief of the tribe, Woksis, storing his tomahawk in a tree near his longhouse as he did each night; however, the next morning, he removed his tomahawk and a clear liquid began to fill a randomly-placed bowl under the tree. [4] When the chief’s daughter began to make dinner, she assumed there was water in the bowl and so used the sap to cook the meat over the fire which created a sweet-tasting meat and a type of maple syrup. [4] While the details surrounding this Native American discovery are not entirely clear, by the 1600’s, settlers in the northeastern US and Canada were using income from maple sugar production to supplement their dairy farming. [5]

While the discovery of maple syrup was likely the most important legacy of the Native Americans’ interaction with the sugar maple, Native Americans also used various parts of the sugar maple for medicinal reasons. Apparently, Native Americans used the inner bark of the sugar maple to treat cough and diarrhea, made soap from sugar maple ashes, used the bark as a dye, drank sap as a spring tonic, and consumed syrup for liver and kidney issues. [6]

In terms of symbolism, many people believe that the maple leaf on the Canadian flag is a sugar maple leaf and is meant to indicate the close connection between the maple syrup industry and Canada; however, the leaf on the flag is meant to be a generic maple leaf and is not specific to the sugar maple because there are ten maple species native to Canada. [7] This national Canadian flag with the single maple leaf design was surprisingly not approved until December of 1964 and is thus a relatively recent creation. [13]

During the winter, sugar that was produced by the leaves in the summer is stored as starch in the roots; in the spring, groundwater mixes with this stored sugar to create sap which is only about 2% sugar. Sap production occurs when the temperature is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day; typically this temperature pattern is present for 4-6 weeks in March and April. This freezing/thawing cycle creates pressure which forces sap through a taphole; unlike the small buckets that my grandfather used, industrial-scale sugaring farms using special tubing attached to the taps to ensure that all the sap can be captured efficiently and piped directly to the next step in the maple production process, the sugarhouse. In the sugarhouse, the excess water in the sap is boiled off to create a syrup which will be fine-tuned(filtered, graded on color, etc.) and then eventually sold. [1]

Though the US may have a greater number of sugar maples in comparison to Canada, it is the province of Quebec that is responsible for 72% of the world’s maple syrup supply. In fact, the organization controlling Quebec’s maple syrup, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ) is quite similar to OPEC. Because FPAQ controls such a large percentage of the maple syrup supply, it has been able to set the price at a shocking $1,300 per barrel! FPAQ requires that each of Quebec’s 13,500 maple syrup producers send a maple syrup quota to FPAQ each year for inspection, tasting, grading, etc. While some of the syrup is immediately sold, other syrup is moved to the reserve and the producers aren’t paid until their syrup is sold; the one good aspect about the syrup reserve is that it allows the price of maple syrup to be relatively stable/not dependent on the year’s production. While this system provides security for the maple syrup producers, it also creates a system of complete dependence on FPAQ and its rules. [8]

While FPAQ may play a major role in the increasing price of maple syrup, there is evidence that the reign of FPAQ is coming to an end as new small-scale producers attempt to increase the supply of maple syrup which would lower the price. Within the last decade or so, FPAQ has been responsible for a 34% increase in the price of maple syrup, so the destruction of FPAQ will likely be beneficial for both consumers and maple syrup producers.[9]

It is obvious that maple syrup is quite a bit more expensive than conventional white or brown sugar, but is this price discrepancy justified? New research has indicated that maple syrup may be the next big superfood. Maple syrup contains 54 compounds with 5 being unique to maple syrup; these compounds have a range of effects from Type II Diabetes management to anti-inflammation and anti-carcinogenic properties. In addition, maple syrup contains several antioxidant compounds which help combat cell aging and these benefits aren’t observed in other natural sweeteners. [10]  Maple syrup also contains more nutrients especially manganese, vitamin B12, and zinc compared to honey, agave syrup, sugar, and brown sugar which all have very little, if any, nutritional value. [11] In addition, the (regular) consumption of pure maple syrup may be able to protect brain cells from Alzheimer’s and other related diseases. [12]

The maple syrup industry is arguably the most important use of the sugar maple, but the timber is also frequently used for bowling pins/bowling alleys, basketball courts, sports equipment(baseball bats), and musical instruments. [3] In addition, the sugar maple is a popular symbol and is the state tree of New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin; the sugar maple is also Canada’s national tree. [3]

As previously discussed, the sugar maple has beautiful and vivid fall foliage which makes it a popular ornamental tree; however, the sugar maple is rather sensitive to anthropogenic impacts such as acid rain, soil acidification, soil compaction, salt pollution, etc. and therefore does not fare well as an urban tree. The Norway maple is a non-native but more urban-tolerant tree and its range overlaps with much of the sugar maple’s; therefore, it is predicted that the Norway maple will gradually displace the sugar maple in urban environments. [3]

One important concluding note about the maple syrup industry: surprisingly, this industry seems to be quite sustainable. Studies have demonstrated that tapped trees have equivalent lifespans compared to untapped trees and grow only slightly slower. [12] This is good news as the increasing demand for maple syrup is likely to increase the number of sugar maples that are planted or at least protected; unfortunately, this protection of the trees is in direct contrast to the many other industries(in particular, the palm oil industry) which cause widespread deforestation to prepare space for crop growth.


* Unfortunately, it was difficult to find specific information on how the Native Americans used the sugar maple for medicinal purposes.




[1] http://vermontmaple.org/how-we-make-it/


[2] http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=h240

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acer_saccharum

[4] http://sugarmakerstimes.blogspot.com/2007/10/native-americans-and-legend-of-maple.html

[5] http://time.com/3958051/history-of-maple-syrup/

[6] https://www.arborday.org/trees/treeguide/treedetail.cfm?itemID=870 [7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maple_leaf

[8] https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/12/maple-syrup-heist

[9] https://mises.org/blog/how-sweet-it-maple-syrup-cartel-crumbles

[10] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1372549/Maple-syrup-joins-ranks-broccoli- blueberries-new-stop-shop-superfood.html

[11] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/foodbeast/maple-syrup_b_5128955.html

[12] https://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/blogs/7-fascinating-facts-about-maple-syrup

[13] https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/flag-canada-history.html

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