This winter, enjoy a New England “sugar bush” experience right in your own Missouri backyard or woodlot. Missouri, too, has sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum), which many Northeasterners use for making delicious maple syrup and sugar.
Unfortunately, because sugar maples create and tolerate dense shade that makes growth for more beneficial oak and hickory species difficult, they aren’t good trees for wildlife or forest diversity. While we don’t recommend planting sugar maple trees on your lands, you can take sweet advantage of those you already have.
You can tap almost any deciduous (broad leaves, not pine needles) tree in the late winter to collect sap for making syrup and sugar. However, sugar maple tree sap has the highest sugar content, around 3 percent. While this seems low, most other trees have only 1 percent or even less. Forty gallons of sugar maple sap will produce one gallon of syrup. Compare that to walnut trees, which take eighty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup!
Sugar maple trees typically grow in forested uplands, but you can also find them in lowlands next to creeks or even in your own backyard. You can identify sugar maple trees by their opposite branching and bark that peels away vertically, exposing a tan or pink color underneath. Check the sugar maple online field guide entry (listed under “Related Information” below) for more identification details.
Collecting tree sap of any kind is not allowed on MDC conservation areas (state-owned public land). Please collect sap on your own land or that of other private landowners who have permitted you to tap their trees.
Once you find your sugar maple tree, make sure it’s at least ten inches in diameter at breast height (about 4 feet above the ground) before you tap it. If it’s any smaller, you could harm or even kill the tree. A single large tree can take up to three taps (never more than three in one tree), but over-tapping can harm the tree. It’s estimated that just one tap will produce the greatest results without harming the tree.
Be sure to wait until the temperature stays consistently below freezing (32 F) at night and above freezing during the day. This is when the sap flows. If you tap too early in the season, the hole will seal up and will need to be drilled again. The best time to tap for most of Missouri is usually middle to late January or early February.
This depends on the weather and the size of your bucket. In general, the greater the difference between day and nighttime temperatures, the greater the sap flow.
Making syrup is a piece of cake … or pancake, that is! All you do is heat the sap and let evaporation do all the work.
We recommend canning your syrup for a shelf life of one year or more. Otherwise, use up your syrup soon after finishing and keep left overs in the refrigerator. If you leave it out too long, mold may develop. Some people will reheat moldy syrup, filter out the mold, add a little water and then refinish with boiling and evaporation to make it edible again.
You can buy maple syrup (the lighter the flavor and color, the higher the price) at most grocery stores. But anyone can go out and buy maple syrup. Only the dedicated few can claim the title of “maple sugar farmer.” Step up and take the challenge! Get outdoors with your family and friends this winter to take part in history, conservation and natural food production! The sweet reward is worth it!