GENOA – In this day and age, it can be hard to appreciate the process by which things like maple syrup are made, especially when shoppers are bombarded with so much selection.
People in Genoa had the opportunity to observe this process firsthand Saturday morning at the Russell Woods Forest Preserve.
Observers watched Peggy Doty, University of Illinois extension educator, drill a 2-inch hole into a maple tree, put a spile in the hole, and watch the sap drip into an empty milk jug.
“It's a gift,” Doty said. “The tree is giving you something that will sustain you for a while.”
On a good day, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup.
Perfect conditions for extracting, or tapping, maple syrup include having below-freezing temperatures overnight and above-freezing conditions during the day. The warmer temperatures force the pressure inside the tree to rise, Doty said.
Legend says tapping maple syrup comes from a Native American who came home from hunting one day, Doty said. He laid his hatchet on a tree because they didn't have furniture, and the hatchet created a crack in the tree. When the sap came out, the Native American's wife boiled it in water with their dinner.
Native Americans used to trade maple syrup because they realized the value it had in survival back then, Doty said.
It takes hours to create the right consistency when boiling sap. The sap needs to be boiled to evaporate the water. Volunteers at the forest preserve suggested it would take about seven hours to make the maple syrup.
Volunteer Jason Thompson said he isn't patient, but the work is all worth it in the end.
“I get a coffee mug with maple syrup in it when we're done,” he said. “You can't buy that anywhere. It's just so sweet... to sip on that on the way home.”
The best tree for tapping maple syrup is a sugar maple because it has the highest sugar concentration. Others that can be used are ash, dogwood, and horse chestnut trees.
Tapping trees will only work in a deciduous forest, Doty said. A deciduous tree will shed its leaves annually.
Observer Janet Buchanan of Cherry Valley said her family has four sugar maple trees and an ash tree in their yard. She researched some information on the Internet but learned more about the procedure at the forest preserve.
“I've always wanted to tap our trees,” she said. “It's easier than we thought.”
After tapping the tree, Doty said it's important to plug the holes with a tree branch so that the tree heals.
If someone cuts a hole too big, then the tree is likely to die. The holes need to be two to three inches in diameter.
When drilling, cut into the part of the tree known as the xylem. The xylem takes the water up into the leaves during photosynthesis, Doty said.
Being his first time being at the forest preserve, Malta resident Aaron Moreno admired the beauty of it. He said his family loves the outdoors.
“Because of time constraints, we don't get to go outdoors often, but when we do, we make it a special, family event,” he said.
Doty warns that if you are boiling the sap, you shouldn't do it in your home because the moisture in the air “can burn the wallpaper in your kitchen,” she said.
The season for tapping maple syrup will likely only continue into early spring, since below-freezing temperatures are required overnight for the best results.