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Non-Timber Forest Producs: Maple Syrup

b2ap3_thumbnail_maple_syrup_w.jpgTimber isn’t the only commodity we get from our forests.  Edible (and delicious) mushrooms, leaks (a wild onion), ginseng and other medicinal plants, and of course maple syrup are among the genre of commodities foresters call non-timber forest products.  Some landowners choose to forego timber harvesting and manage for these other commodities instead.


Much research has gone into managing sugar bushes or groves, a name given to a tree(s) that are utilized for their sap.


Nobody knows exactly when maple syrup was discovered, but it was first used by Native Americans before European settlers ever came to this continent.  It was an important commodity in Native American economies.  

European settlers learned and refined the techniques and art from the Indians, and soon it became as much a staple of American farming as growing and harvesting hay.  It was made for personal consumption and extra income.  Maple sugar production was the major source of high quality sugar, as other types of sugar were rare and expensive.  It was as common as table salt today.


While the techniques of maple sugaring have been further refined and streamlined the basic production methods are the same.


A little known fact is that maple sap suitable for sugaring can actually come from several species of maple, such as red maple, silver maple, Norway maple, and ash-leaf maple (box elder).  However, the best producer, based on the sugar content of the sap, is sugar maple (Acer saccharum) also commonly known as hard maple or rock maple.


It takes approximately 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to produce one gallon of high quality maple syrup.  Any other species would take about twice that amount to produce a gallon of syrup.


Sugar maple trees are indigenous to North America and grow naturally only in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. This makes maple syrup a very special product that we get from our northeastern forests.


According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, maple syrup production in 2009 totaled 2.33 million gallons, up 22 percent from 2008 and the highest on record since 1944. Vermont clearly leads the way in maple syrup production at 39%; Maine and New York are second and about equal at 16%, with Pennsylvania ranking fifth 4%.


Vermont has the highest concentration of maple trees (particularly sugar and red maple) in its forests of any state, which explains why Vermont produces so much maple syrup. Consequently, it is also why Vermont has some of the nation's most spectacular fall foliage.


But partisan Pennsylvanians need not worry; no state or region produces superior maple syrup. The quality of the syrup is affected by weather during sap flow, time during the season when sap is collected, and by processing technique. Regardless, producers in every state and region are usually able to make high quality syrup and candies.  Much like wines, the variation should be tasted and enjoyed.


The Pennsylvania Maple Festival is held each spring in Somerset County, Meyersdale.  Information can be found at PA Maple Festival.


Tapping of maple trees typically occurs in mid to late February in order to take advantage of the warming days and freezing nights of late winter and early spring.  These warming days and freezing nights are essential for the production of sap with high concentrations of sugar.  


When temperatures rise above freezing, pressure develops in the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow through a wound or tap hole. When temperatures fall below freezing suction develops, drawing water in through the roots. Consequently, the sap is replenished, thereby allowing sap to flow again when temperatures rise above freezing. While sap typically flows during the day when it’s warmer, it will also flow at night if temperatures are above freezing.  


If the temperatures are too warm or too cold the sap flow will diminish.  Weather creates a good year or bad year for maple syrup production.  The tapping season is usually a short six weeks.   


It was in the 1960’s that maple sugaring declined as an enterprise on family farms and industry took over as large scale producers. During the 1970’s technological improvements broke through, such a tubing systems where sap comes directly from the tree to the evaporator house. Vacuum pumps were added to these tubing systems. Pre-heaters are used to recycle some of the heat loss. Reverse-osmosis filters are used to remove some of the water before the sap was boiled.  New filtering techniques, supercharged preheaters, and better storage containers continue to be developed.  All of this greatly improves the speed at which water is removed and the syrup or sugar is produced.  


However, maple sugaring is still continuing today among individuals and families, more or less as a hobby and as a little extra income.


Contributed by Christopher Jones, Service Forester with the PA DCNR Bureau of Forestry

Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry foresters are available for assistance to private landowners free of charge.  Interested landowners can call


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