There’s sugar in them there trees . . .

Conservation Naturalist Terri Eggers shows off a block of hard maple sugar as sap boils in copper kettles.

The days are already shorter.  The air is acquiring a sharper bite.  It’s hard to imagine the grey, cold indifference of winter could offer up one of Mother Nature’s sweetest gifts.  But winter does have its treats.  Sometimes you just have to go prospecting a little harder to find them.  Maybe even deep inside a tree.

It’s really all about the flow: February will produce the right conditions in Missouri to signal trees to start circulating their sap.  Below freezing temperatures at night and above freezing daytime highs gets the flow going.  The bigger the differences between day and night temperatures, the greater the flow as the trees begin realigning their sugar energies to prepare for spring budding.

The sugar is the key: Buried within the tree sap, which is mostly water, there is a small percentage of sugar.  Sugar maples have the most.  Still though, only about 3 percent of their sap is sugar.  During this time, these trees can be tapped and the sap collected, ready to extract the sugar.  American Indians taught all this to the early colonists.  The settlers would drill small holes in the trees and place hollow taps to draw the sap into wooden buckets.

Then it’s time to turn up the heat: The way to “mine” the sugar out is through boiling.  Back at the “sugar shed,” settlers would boil the sap down in large copper pots over an open fire.  Forty gallons of sugar-maple sap must be boiled for about 40 hours to yield one gallon of maple syrup.  Luckily, there wasn’t much else to do in the winter back then.  And in the days before central heating, boiling sap over an open fire wasn’t the worst place to hang out.

A Conservation volunteer creates sugar on snow, a toffee-like treat made when hot maple syrup mixes with snow.

Depending on how long the sap was boiled, a variety of products could be made, from syrup to hard sugar.  The most common product for the settlers was maple sugar blocks, because the sugar could be shaved off and used all year – or even traded for other goods.  By 1890, cane sugar became cheaper to import as a sweetener, so maple sugar production shifted to syrup instead.

Maple sugaring is not just about history, though.

Mark this down on your calendar:  Saturday, February 4, 2012.  That’s the date of the Annual Maple Sugar Festival.  It takes place at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Rockwoods Reservation in Wildwood, in west St. Louis County.  The festival goes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and will show you how to work this magic in your own backyard.

You and your family can discover first-hand how simple it is to identify maple trees, plus the proper technique to tap them, and boil the sap into syrup or sugar on your own to enjoy at home. While the sugar maple is the best, you can do it with any maple tree.

You can also take a guided hike to see sap collection in action and witness first-hand how the settlers made the sap into sugar. Of course, tasting real sugar and syrup samples at the festival is one of the most popular attractions.

Rockwoods Reservation is located at 2751 Glencoe Road, off Highway 109. That’s about two miles south of Highways 109 and 100, and about two miles north of Highway 109 and I-44.  Visitors are encouraged to dress for cold weather as most of the event will take place outdoors.

Perhaps the Rockwoods Maple Sugar Festival will help you uncover one of nature’s most delightful buried treasures.  For more information, please call 636-458-2236.

Written by Dan Zarlenga, St. Louis regional media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation

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