Day 36: How maple syrup works

Kelly Stand Road to Congdon Shelter – 27 miles

Maple syrup is everywhere I look in Vermont. Every farm stand, grocery store, and gas station sells maple syrup, maple candies, and maple soda.

Native Americans made maple syrup and taught Europeans to do the same, so it might be the oldest agricultural product in North America. Clearly, maple products remain a major industry in this state.

In the Whites I met a guy who makes maple syrup for a living. He explained that he taps trees from January to March and then goes spring skiing in Tahoe after the work is done.

All summer long sugar maples photosynthesize. They make sugar using energy from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and water that rises as xylem from their roots to their leaves. The tree uses much of this sugar to grow during the summer. They also store some of the sugar in their roots and stems as antifreeze for the freezing months and as fuel to survive the leafless season and grow new buds and leaves in the early spring.

Since maples live in shady environments where sunlight is often limited, these trees save a little extra sugar in their vessels for lean times. It is this sugar-filled xylem that syrup makers harvest in early spring as the plant mobilizes its energy stores for bud growth.

During sugaring season, the freeze-thaw cycle of warm days and cold nights causes the sap to flow out of tapholes and into buckets or tubes for harvest. The sap is 2% sugar and is concentrated by boiling or reverse osmosis until it is about 2/3 sugar. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup!

Maple syrup has been interesting to learn about on this trip and very tasty to bring along as a local trail snack.

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