Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

Sweet Days in the Sugar Bush: Maple Sugaring, Part I

Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

Sweet Days in the Sugar Bush: Maple Sugaring, Part I

Article excerpt

This article, the first of two on maple sugaring, deals with the sugar maple, maple sugar economics and politics, the sugarbush, stages of sugarmaking technology, and tapping. The second article, which will appear in the next issue of 'The Chronicle, will describe gathering the sap, the sugarhouse, boiling the sap, packaging the syrup, sugaring off, sugaring on the Foster Family farm, and end of the sugaring season.

The Sugar Maple

The sugar maple (Acer saccharum), also known as hard maple or rock maple, is arguably the most important tree in the northern forests of the United States (Figure l). There is also the black maple [Acer saccharum. v. nigrum), which is considered by many to be a subspecies since its sap and wood are virtually identical to the sugar maple. The red maple (Acer rubrum) is second only to the sugar maple in syrup production. It has a good quantity of sap but low sturar content - not ideal for commercial operations. Maples originated in China and Japan, but how they spread across the ocean to North America is uncertain. The range of the sugar maple in the United States can be seen by noting the states with the largest maple syrup and sugar production (in decreasing order): Vermont, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and West Virginia. However, Quebec, Canada is by far the largest producer in North America, with almost an order of magnitude more than Vermont.

Before the arrival of European settlers, the northern forests of the U.S. had large stands of mature sugar maples. Although first-growth forests have trees 100 to 500 years old (and a few 1, 000 years old) most of the growth will have occurred in the first 70 to 100 years of tree life. Most of these first-growth monarchs were cut down to clear land for agriculture, to produce potash, or for lumber and woodenware.

Sugar maple seedlings are an important deer browse and mature trees yield excellent firewood. Because of its hardness, strength, smoothness, and attractive color, sugar maple has been used in a wide variety wood products including furniture (birds-eye maple, curly maple), violin backs, steamship interiors, railway cars, butcher blocks, carriage spokes, pantry boxes, sieves, cheese and butter boxes, tubs and pails, shoe lasts and pegs, mortars, rolling pins, mashers, stirrers, bread boards, butter prints and molds, chopping bowls, spoons, gunstocks, spinning wheels, cabinetry, marquetry, croquet sets, dance floors, print blocks, bowling lanes and pins, piano pin blocks, and harps.

The sugar maple, an outstanding ornamental shade tree, can live 300 to 400 years and reach a height of 120 feet (Figures 2 and 3). After 140 to 150 years, the sugar maple increases in width but not in height (Figure 4). Acid rain and air pollution, primarily from Midwestern coal-burning power plants, has been reducing the maple tree's natural defense against insect pests such as the gypsy moth, pear thirp, and saddled prominent caterpillar. Vermont and other maple sugaring states have done extensive research on maple tree health, including the Proctor Maple Research Center (donated by Governor Mortimer Proctor) that started in a small shanty in 1946 and has grown into a major maple research center (Figure 5). Fall foliage of the sugar maple (clear yellow, rich crimson, brilliant orange, tumultuous scarlet) attracts the leaf-peeping tourist and provides an opportunity for the direct retail sale of maple syrup and sugar.

Maple Sugar Economics and Politics

Pioneer farmers in the early-nineteenth century commenced making maple sugar soon after settling. The sugar was mostly for family use, and perhaps some was given or sold to neighbors. Maple sugar was produced at a time when the rest of the farm was dormant - logging was finished and it was too early to plow. Although the primary maple product was sugar (hard and soft), other products included maple honey, sap beer, maple cream, and maple butter. …

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