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The Garden Gate: Looking for a sweet hobby? Sugaring may be for you

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Particular things come to mind as we look forward to spring and warmer days to come. One early spring idea for those of us with sugar maples in our gardens is tree tapping.

“Sugaring” is truly an American enterprise.

Most of us are familiar with the 19th century Currier and Ives lithographs, with their sentimental depictions of rural New England life.

One of those most frequently seen is “Sugaring.” It portrays the woodland camp scene where big kettles of maple tree sap are being boiled down into maple syrup.

Invented by the Indians hundreds of years ago, sugaring was quickly adopted by America’s early settlers. With them came large iron kettles, which made it possible to produce larger quantities than in birchbark containers.

Hobby tree tapping is becoming popular as commercial tree tapping declines. Nature centers, park departments and living-history museums have begun to sponsor maple festivals, which have become popular as people learn to identify maple trees, tap them and boil down the sap into maple syrup and sugar.

The sap, called “sugar water” by our forefathers, is a delicious, clear beverage that can be used straight from the tree or to make presweetened tea.

It takes about 5 gallons of sap to boil down to make 1 pint of maple syrup.

You can do this on the kitchen stove or on a camp stove outside, which would prevent the house filling with steam.

Pouring hot maple syrup on fresh, clean snow creates a kind of maple caramel loved by many generations of children in northern states since colonial times.

Maple products were the cheapest, most available sweeteners for more than  two centuries.

Maple sugar — not cane sugar — was used more than the other natural sweetener, honey.

The main tools of tree tapping, the brace and bit, predate the American Revolution.

Maple sugar is so expensive now it’s hard to believe it was ever less than half the price of cane sugar. This was true until 1880, when Congress repealed a tariff on imported cane sugar.

Most people think of New England or Ohio as maple sugar centers. Maple trees grow in every state, however, and you have a source of maple syrup if you have only one maple tree of any variety.

Many people have discovered the bonus of a private source of this most delectable treat.

Since proper tapping does no harm to a tree, why not enjoy a further benefit from it?

Tapping the tree can be a family project, and a very educational one at that. Children love the process and can learn a great deal about trees, American history and a variety of other things in the process.

Much of children’s literature includes accounts of tree tapping and syrup making.

The Sugar Bush in Aniwa, Wis., is a large mail-order house which stocks syrup-making equipment and supplies. Purchases from hobby-tree-tapping enthusiasts account for more than half of the firm’s business.

After a tree is tapped, the sap begins flowing as soon as early springs warmer days, followed by cold nights, make the sap begin its yearly process of renewal.

Maple trees were venerated by the Iroquois and other tribes in the northern United States and southern Canada. They used maple sap straight from the tree or fermented it into an intoxicating beverage. To produce a vinegar that was later sweetened with maple syrup, the Potawatomi Indians allowed the fermenting process to continue longer. This product was used as a sauce for venison and other cooked meats.

Maple sugar was mixed with cornmeal and carried on long journeys as a nutritious food, and maple syrup was carried in empty quail or duck egg shells.

Several tribes used the dried inner bark of maple trees for making bread. Other parts of these trees are edible, too. The large seeds can be boiled, and small maple seedlings can also be cooked and eaten.

The Winnebagos and Chippewas are recorded as selling 15,000 pounds of maple sugar to the Northwest Fur Co. in 1870. The sugaring season was a sort of carnival for the Indians. It was an occasion for family gatherings and much festivity.

The Crow Indians made sugar from the sap of the box elder, too, or the ash-leaved maple. Although sap from the red maple was considered inferior to that from the sugar maple, it and sap from the silver maple were both used.

In Colonial times, the wood of the maple tree was preferred for crafting bowls or trenchers and plates which furnished their kitchens.

Sugaring can be a sweet hobby and a real lesson in Americana.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.