Featured Favorite: Sugar Maple

The 143-year-old sugar maple tree outside the Borchardt house near Clarksville, Iowa, shades the family’s outdoor activities in the summer, brightens up the fall, and makes the winter and spring a bit sweeter.


Every February, the Borchardt family taps the tree for maple syrup.


“It’s been a fun family activity for us. The sap moves in mid-to-late February during the time when there’s not a lot to do outside,” Trees Forever Program Manager Meredith Borchardt said. “It’s usually just the four of us, but we’ve included others in the past. Friends of the family have joined us. They’ve been very interested in it. It’s so simple and easy to understand at any age.”


Meredith’s daughters, now young teenagers, joined in as toddlers, but their family tradition dates back to when Meredith and her husband were newlyweds. They tested the process on  two trees outside their home in Mason City, and when they later moved to Butler County, they were excited to discover four sugar maples on their property and in the neighborhood.


 “I think it teaches the girls about the inner workings of trees,” Borchardt said. “The carbohydrates in the tree are moving in the spring time from the roots to the branches. They’re learning about the annual cycle of tree growth and development and understanding how that food is made.”


As the Borchardt daughters can tell you, maple syrup is made by boiling down sap from the tree. Sap is the sticky, gooey liquid full of sugar, minerals and water that is distributed to different parts of the tree. When the winter temperatures start to rise and trees start to come out of dormancy, the sap moves from the roots to the branches.


While other trees can be tapped, sugar maples are the best ones because they have a high sugar content.


Meredith says they follow the tried-but-true process for making maple sugar.


“It Is time-consuming, but simple,” she says. “We just drill the holes in the tree and put in the taps. We have plastic lines that go from the taps to a bucket and store the collected sap in our shed. When we get enough, we boil it down and make it more concentrated.”


It’s a constant process of boiling down the concentrate, then adding more sap. It takes about 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to get one gallon of maple syrup.


“When it starts foaming, you know it’s done. Then we filter it through a cloth filter and pour the syrup into glass jars and can it in a hot water bath.”


The syrup is used on pancakes, waffles and in granola for the rest of the year.


“The homemade syrup is a lot sweeter and a lot thinner than store-bought syrup. It pours out really fast, and you don’t need as much natural maple syrup to put on your pancakes.”


As much as the Borchardts love their maple tree, Meredith  recommends to proceed with caution before planting a new one.


“They’re beautiful trees and have beautiful fall foliage. However, most Iowa communities have planted too many maples,“ Meredith explains.  “Look around your yard and neighborhood; chances are there are already several maples.  If that is the case, consider planting something else.”


In recent years, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forestry Bureau has inventoried trees in more than 270 communities across the state and discovered that maple and ash trees make up 54 percent of trees in Iowa’s public parks and streets.  Of that percentage, 37 percent are maples.


“The recommendation is that you don’t have more than 20 percent of a genuss—such as Acer, which is the genus of maples. That’s important because we never know what the next threat to our forests is,” Meredith said. “We could have never predicted the arrival of emerald ash borer and its subsequent destruction of ash. The best way to protect our forests is to have that diverse mix of species, so we don’t set ourselves up for tremendous loss from a future pest.”


If you have a tree you want to tap in your backyard or timber, do a bit of research first, so you don’t hurt the tree. For example, Meredith wouldn’t tap a sugar maple unless the tree has a diameter of at least 12 inches. More guidelines can be found at: http://www.extension.iastate.edu/forestry/publications/PDF_files/F-337.pdf




Sugar maple sap boils down into yummy maple syrup!