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Maple Syrupin': March School Unit

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Revised January 31, 2013

Unit goals

Maple syruping is an annual spring event that dates back to the Native Americans. They were the first to tap maple trees which provided them with not only maple sugar, but a time to socialize with friends and family. This tradition was taught to the early colonists and pioneers who modified the process and eventually turned it into a commercial business. Until the 1900’s the major confections used in North America were maple syrup and maple sugar. The goal of this unit is for students to learn more about the significance of maple syruping's past history and gain a better understanding of the internal working of a tree. This will be accomplished with the "hands on" process of maple syruping.


Before your visit, please review with your students (depending on topics you choose):

  • The basics of the maple syrupin' process
  • Some historical background of maple sugaring and syruping
  • Proper dress for March weather conditions
  • Behavior expectations during the visit

At River Bend:

  • During the introduction we will review the above material.
  • Students will venture out to the forest to find and tap a few maple trees.
  • Students will visit our operational 'modern' maple syruping process to learn how sap is turned into syrup.
  • Students will also visit Sugarbush Outpost, a remote 'rustic' site demonstrating Native American and pioneer techniques for collecting and using maple sap.
  • Everyone will get to taste some finished maple syrup.
  • We will talk of related upcoming events at River Bend.
  • We will invite the students to return on their own with family and friends.

Back in the classroom:

  • Seek related books, videos, and web sites that showcase a maple syruping process.
  • Have the students research alternative methods of maple syruping, modern or historical.
  • If at all possible, try tapping a few trees and making some syrup in the classroom.

Maple Syrup Evaporator

Sap Dripping

Tasting Syrup

Kid's stuff

Note to teachers: Each topic discussed below can be included as sparingly or intensively as you prefer.

What are the basics of maple syruping?

While many different methods for making syrup out of maple sap have been developed over the centuries, the process as it is done today is essentially the same as that of hundreds of years ago:

  1. Find a healthy maple tree
  2. Make a hole in the tree trunk
  3. Place a spout ("spile") in the hole to drip the watery sap into a container
  4. Cook the sap over a fire to boil off the extra water
  5. Enjoy the syrup!

What exactly is sap?

The sap of a maple tree is very watery and only contains a little sugar - about 2-4%. It is the 'blood' of the tree, moving sugar and nutrients up and down the tree. Maple sap is not the same as the sticky 'sap' you might find on a pine tree.

Is syrup the only stuff that can be made from sap?

The purpose for tapping the trees is to get the sugar the tree has stored. Native peoples often drank the sap right from the tree after a harsh winter left them in need of energy. When native peoples and pioneers did cook sap, it often made sense to boil away all the water, leaving crystal blocks of sugar, which were easier to carry around. Pioneers also would sometimes take the cooked liquid sugar with just a little water left and throw it on the snow to make a maple sugar taffy.

  • First a hole is drilled into the tree with a bit and brace First a hole is drilled into the tree with a bit and brace
  • A spile is placed in the hole A spile is placed in the hole
  • A sap sac is prepared for hanging A sap sac is prepared for hanging
  • Then placed on the tree Then placed on the tree
  • The sap sac collects the sap The sap sac collects the sap
  • The sap is brought back to the evaporator The sap is brought back to the evaporator
  • The sap is boiled for hours until ready The sap is boiled for hours until ready
  • When done, the hot sap is poured into jars When done, the hot sap is poured into jars

Other things needed in the operation

  • Tools for cutting up and splitting wood to fire the evaporator
  • Buckets, bins, and tanks for carrying and holding sap
  • Supplies for cleaning equipment
  • Tools to help fix and adjust equipment as needed
  • Helpers to do all the work!

What kind of tools did pioneers and Native Americans use?

They didn't have metal tools so crude tools were used to make holes and equipment and buckets and spiles were carved of wood. Boiling was harder without a metal bucket, so often hot rocks were placed into the wooden buckets instead to heat the sap. Here is a web page with great pictures of Ojibwe maple sugar camps.

What is Sugarbush Outpost?

Tucked away into the woods, under the tall maples, your can discover what life was like for the Native Americans and early pioneers during sugaring time! You will see examples of shelters and historic tools used during maple syruping, and hear some stories from the old days.

The science of maple syruping

While steeped in history and culture, making maple syrup also involves biology, math, physics, and more. You have to know the right kind of trees, gauge the weather, manage the sap and boiling process, and follow important guidelines for finishing syrup.

Here is a chart showing the layers of a tree trunk. We tap into the xylem to collect sap.

Tree Layers

  • Bark - dead, outside covering which protects trees from excessive water loss, injury, insects, disease, weather, herbivores, etc.
  • Phloem - transports sap down from the leaves to the roots. When phloem dies, it turns into bark.
  • Cambium - the growing layer of a tree made up of microscopic cells. The cells divide, producing phloem to the outside and xylem to the inside.
  • Xylem - transports water and minerals throughout the tree. It also functions to support the tree and to store food.

Other important parts of a tree:

  • Roots - anchors tree to ground; mineral and water absorption.
  • Trunk - supports tree; transports water and nutrients; grows at top to push towards sunlight.
  • Branches - support leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds; transport; grow at tips to spread towards sunlight.
  • Leaves - produce food through photosynthesis.

How do you tell if a tree is a maple?

Many people can tell a maple tree in the summer by looking at the leaves, but during maple syruping time, there are not leaves. Maple trees are some of the few trees with 'opposite' branching, however, where the leaves or branches grow straight across from each other. There are several kinds of maples, but sugar maples and black maples make the best syrup. A tree needs to be 10 inches in diameter to be tapped, but big trees can hold more than one tap.

Sugar Maple Identification

How does the evaporation process work?

A hydrometer is used to measure the percentage of sugar in the sap, To find out how many gallons of sap it will take to make a gallon of syrup, you divide the amount of sugar in the sap into the number 86. Thus, if a tree has 2% sugar, it will take about 43 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup!

On our evaporator, we pour the raw sap into a large tank on a tower and the sap slowly flows into the boiling pan of the evaporator. When the temperature of the boiling sap tells us that the syrup is ready, we open a valve to let the syrup flow into the jars. We sometimes take it off early, though, and do the last bit of boiling on the stove.

Evaporator Diagram

How should we dress for our visit to River Bend?

Weather conditions in March can be quite varied and change quickly. Expect to be outside for most of the visit and also expect to venture off the trail at least a short distance from time to time.

  • Dress for the temperature of the day
  • Wear boots if needed
  • Wear clothes that can get dirty
  • Bring rain gear if it looks like rain

What do we need to remember when we visit River Bend?

  1. Being quiet will help you to see and learn more along the trail.
  2. Wear a name tag so we can get to know you better.
  3. Listen to your leader.
  4. Raise your hand if you have something to say.
  5. Leave everything where you find it.
  6. Stay with your group and on the trail unless your leader takes you off trail.
  7. Be nice to nature - and to each other!

Maple Syruping on the Web

Looking for syruping supplies? We use and recommend

Here's a kid's page

More maple syruping info

Info on a book you might find useful


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