Tag Archives: maple

Meet the Maples

maple sugaringIt’s maple sugar season: that time of year when we tap trees for their sweet sap, and boil it down to make syrup and other treats.

The star of the show is the famous sugar maple (Acer saccharum), but you can spot many other equally stunning maples in Massachusetts.

Maple Tree Basics

Before you go looking for maples, here are some general tips. First, keep an eye out for opposite branches. All maples have buds, leaves, and branches that appear in pairs opposite each other. Only a few other trees, including ashes and dogwoods, share this pattern. Combining this observation with other clues such as bark texture and habitat can help you identify maples before their leaves appear.

You might also see trees outfitted with sap collection buckets that aren’t sugar maples. Other maple trees can produce tasty sap, though they’re not usually as popular for sugaring as sugar maples (some are less sweet or less abundant, for example).

Some Maples to Meet

Here are a few of the species you may spot:

Silver Maple via flickr/natureandeventsSilver maple (Acer saccharinum) This beautiful tree is named for the silvery underside of its many-pointed leaves. Find it growing on floodplains, often near fiddlehead-bearing ostrich ferns or in urban areas, where it’s a common street tree. Older silver maples, which can be 70 feet tall, have shaggy bark.



Red Maple NPS/Alicia LafeverRed maple (Acer rubrum) This tree lives up to its name: the leaf stalks are red, the leaves turn red in fall, and even the twigs are red. It’s also a true survivor—it grows as far south as Florida and north as Quebec, and in urban settings, upland forests, swamps, and many other habitats.



Mountain Maple via flickr/Per Verdonk

Mountain maple (Acer spicatum) This is a small maple that likes moist forests. Its leaves are smaller and more jagged than the striped maple’s. The bark is brown and the twigs are red. People sometimes say it looks like a rugged mountain man who’s wearing brown pants and a red shirt!



Norway Maple via flickr/F D RichardsNorway maple (Acer platanoides) This species has been introduced from Europe and Asia. It tolerates pollution, drought, and other hazards of urban areas, and its broad leaves shade out other plants, making it a threat to our native trees. Its bark is patterned with small ridges. If you crush its leaves or stems, you’ll find a surprise: a milky white sap. People have bred many color variants—if you see a maple with purplish-red leaves, chances are it’s a Norway maple.


Striped Maple via Art PoskanzerStriped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) This small tree has big, 3-lobed leaves. Its most memorable feature is the bark of younger trees, which has elegant vertical stripes of green, grey, and brown. Look for it in moist woods.


Learn more

  • For more maple stories, and, in many cases, a tasty syrup treat, take part in one of our related programs.
  • Pick up sugaring gear as well as books about maples at the Audubon Shop in Lincoln.

Photo credits: Silver Maple via flickr/natureandevents; Red Maple NPS/Alicia Lafever; Mountain Maple via flickr/Per Verdonk; Norway Maple via flickr/F D Richards; Striped Maple via Art Poskanzer

Much Ado About Maple

Maple SugaringIt’s a seasonal rite of passage in New England. By mid-February, maple trees across the region are affixed with silver buckets ready and waiting to catch the sweet sap as it drips through the tap.

Looking to learn more about maple sugaring, and how to get involved? Keep reading.

The Sappy Story

There are many legends about how maple sugar was first discovered. One Iroquois legend tells how Chief Woksis had thrown his tomahawk into a maple tree one winter evening. After he removed it, the weather turned sunny and warm. Sap began to flow from the cut in the tree.

Most likely the Native Americans discovered the sweetness of the maple tree by eating “sapsicles,” the icicles of frozen maple sap that form from the end of a broken twig.

The most common early method of collecting sweet sap was to make V-shaped slashes in the tree trunk, and collect the sap in a wooden vessel. With the advent of drills, both Native Americans and European settlers started drilling holes in the trees and inserting spiles made of a softwood twig such as sumac or elderberry to allow the sap to run out. This was much less harmful to the tree and more efficient for collection.

These days, at Mass Audubon, we use metal spiles and buckets as well as wood fired evaporators. Larger scale producers use plastic spiles and tubing that runs from tree to tree and then into big collecting tanks. Many producers also now use freeze-thaw separation systems or reverse osmosis to remove some of the water before they boil the sap in large, gas-fired evaporators.

Sweet Tree

While all maples have sweet sap, sugar maples, Acer saccharum, produce the best sap for sugaring. The sap of the sugar maple has higher concentrations of sugar than other members of the maple family, and produces better flavored, lighter syrup.

The sugar maple is a large, long lived, slow growing, hardwood tree. A tappable tree should be at least 12 inches in diameter, which takes about 40 years for a sugar maple.

Watching the Weather

Sugar maples will run sap only when the weather conditions are right. The normal tapping time in Massachusetts is mid-February to mid-March. Sap will run when nights are cold, 25° F or below, and days are warm, 40° F or above.

The depth of the snow on the ground during the season is also a factor in sap season. If there is a deep layer of snow on top of the frozen ground during maple season, the snow will help extend the season by keeping the ground frozen longer. Frozen ground helps to slow the development of the tree’s leaf buds, and delay the “buddiness” of the sap.

From Sap to Syrup

Once the sap is collected, it heads to the evaporator, where it boils down, creating the steamy plume that makes everything smell so sweet. It takes 4 to 6 hours of continuous boiling before the sap reduces enough to become delicious maple syrup. It gets strained and bottled and then it’s ready to eat!

Join the Fun

Explore the sweet side of nature and take part in the New England tradition! In February and March you can experience the art and fun of maple sugaring at Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries, with tours, festivals, programs, and pancake breakfasts.

Looking to tap on your own? Pick up supplies and a manual at the Audubon Shop in Lincoln.