Green Lane Park Hosts 24th Annual Maple Sugar Magic
The fingers of children reach to get a taste of the fresh sap dripping from a spile inserted into the tree to direct the flow of the sweet liquid.
Ideal weather was on tap Saturday for “Maple Sugar Magic,” one of Montgomery County’s most popular programs, at Green Lane Park Saturday.
People of all ages arrived for the morning session, each one eager to get an insider’s look at the “magic” behind making the maple syrup, candies and cream that delight their taste buds.
The event drew a large and diverse crowd at the Upper Frederick Township Hill Road day use area.
After 24 years, the program is still going strong. Headed by Environmental Education Specialist Kevin Crilley and his team, the program is designed to educate the public on the technique of collecting sap, processing and grading the syrup, and also supplying a “taste” of the unique history that accompanies maple sugar.
Dating back to the early 1500s, maple sugaring is a distinctive North American tradition, with the majority of production occurring in Canada, Vermont, New York and Maine where conditions are ideal. These conditions include nights that fall below freezing and days with temperatures above freezing. Consequently, the sugaring season is on average only 4-6 weeks long, depending on when the maple trees begin to bud and the temperatures of the preceding winter.
“You just got to be ready to jump on it. The people from Bradford County…those people tapped their trees a month ahead of their average date [this year]. It was just a non-winter. In an ideal season, [Green Lane] is lucky to get three weeks,” said Crilley.
Green Lane Park Environmental Education Specialist Kevin Crilley shows the crowd sugar sand, a byproduct of the evaporation process during the making of maple syrup.
The first step to the collection process is identifying the types of trees that produce the sugary sap. These include most prominently the sugar maple and red maple; the latter runs earlier and is less sweet than its relative. Long, flat and ashy gray bark in addition to opposite twigs and pointy buds help to pinpoint which trees to tap.
“Sap is essentially the food for the tree; it’s its blood. So if we take too much food away from the tree that isn’t healthy than we are going to kill our tree,” explains Jessica Plumm, Park Ranger at Green Lane Park.
Assuming then that the tree is healthy, the tree can be drilled. A spile is inserted to direct the flow, and 10 percent of the tree sap is allowed to drip into lidded buckets. At this point in the session, children had participated in the drilling and hammering of the tree; later the entire crowd reaped the benefits as they took a taste of the dripping, sugary sap.
Crilley explained the next step in developing maple syrup - drawing the attention of the crowd to the evaporator, where the clear sap would be skimmed of impurities (called “sugar sand”) and heated until it reaches the boiling point of 219.5°F. In order for the color and consistency to resemble what is found on kitchen tables, the evaporator could run for five to six hours, depending on the temperature of the fire, after which the syrup undergoes a final filtration. In a commercial business, this process would take place indoors in what is called a “sugar house.”
Some attendees came for personal interests and sheer curiosity, others attended for “training” with a goal of collecting their own backyard syrup, and still others had the sole purpose of tasting and buying the maple syrup products offered.
Megan Hughes drills into a maple tree as spectators gather around to watch the second step in the gathering of the sugary sap used to make maple sugar.
“My favorite part,” said Linda Keller, a volunteer leader at the event, “is when the children taste the difference between the real maple syrup and the “counterfeit” syrup. They can tell right away.” As predicted, when the children were put to the test and Keller asked which syrup they tasted was the pure, unadulterated maple syrup, versus commercial pancake syrup, there was a 100 percent passing grade as the children raised their hands.
“Now that’s real!” said one boy, as he licked his sample, a big smile on his face.
Over 700 senior citizens, middle-aged and young adults, and children have experienced Maple Sugar Magic over the past month. Both private and public schools have brought students on field trips to learn about the unique history of maple syrup.
Holding a special place in Native American folklore and colonial traditions, the program is both entertaining and educational.