Best Trees For Maple Syrup (How To Identify And Find)

Maple syrup season. Maple sap dripping into a metal pail attached to a tree. Copy space.

Tapping trees for maple syrup is a fun early spring activity. Many different kinds of trees can be tapped for maple syrup. In fact, any deciduous tree can be tapped for syrup. However, some trees produce better quality sap than others. Let’s go over the best trees to tap for delicious maple syrup!

Some of the best trees that can be tapped for syrup are sugar maples, black maples, red maples, Norway maples and silver maples. Each of these trees has different sugar content in its sap resulting in a sweeter or more dry syrup. Sugar and red maples have the sweetest sap for syrup.

Read on for more information about what trees you can tap for maple syrup, how to find these trees, and how to tap them for sugaring that will yield the most sap and do the least amount of harm to the tree.

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The Best Trees For Maple Syrup

Almost any leafy tree can be tapped for its sap, but certain trees have sap with higher sugar content, making them more ideal for tapping. Below are some of the BEST trees for making maple syrup. 

The sugar content of the sap affects how much sap you will need to produce a sweet syrup. Trees with higher sugar content can yield more maple syrup with less sap.

Sugar Maples Provide The Sweetest Syrup

Maple sap dripping into a bucket

The sugar maple has the highest concentration of sugar in its sap, as its name implies. The sugar maple is native to North America and loves the sun and well-drained soils. The sugar maple will grow in partial sun but prefers areas where it can sunbathe just about all day!

This tree grows at a medium rate, tacking on about 12”-24” each year. The sugar maple can be identified by the color of its leaves, which are dark green on one side and a lighter green on the underside. In the Fall, their leaves will change to gorgeous yellows, oranges, and reds.

You can also look at the shape of the leaves along with the color to identify a sugar maple. The leaves contain three to five lobes and have smooth edges in between them.

Black Maple Trees Produce Less Sap Than Sugar Maples

The black maple tree is native to the Central and Eastern United States. This tree is fairly common and grows at a medium rate of 12”-24” per year. Black maples can grow to be between 60-80 feet tall at their full maturity.

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The biggest difference between sugar maple and black maple can be identified by the leaves. The black maple has three lobes that seem to droop and sag, whereas a sugar maple more often has five firm-standing lobes on its leaves. 

The leaves of a black maple tend to have longer leaf stalks, a dark green color all around, and turn a bright yellow in the Fall. Black maples and sugar maples have similar sugar content in their sap, so consider yourself lucky if you have either one in your backyard!

Red Maple Trees Have Brilliant Red Leaves

The red maple tree grows in Eastern and Central North America, growing as far north as Quebec and as far south as Texas and Florida. The red maple is most famously known for its brilliant red leaves and is the most common tree in Eastern North America.

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Identifying the red maple is fairly easy. You can pick this tree out from other maples by its reddish twigs and five-lobed leaves with segregated edges. The red maple is used for maple syrup production on a smaller scale than some other trees that can be tapped for syrup. 

The University of Maine, in a fact sheet from its Signs Of The Seasons: A New England Phenology Program, notes that the most obvious way to identify a red maple is that it has five lobes that reach out from the center, closely resembling how fingers extend from the palm of a hand.

One of the reasons the red maple is among the most common trees is because it’s not too picky about where it grows. The soil conditions can vary widely and it’s not too bothered by sun or shade. At its mature height, you can expect a red maple to be anywhere from 90’-120’.

Norway Maple Trees Have Five Wide Lobed Leaves

Autumnal foliage of norway maple against blue sky

Norway maples are deciduous trees that are considered invasive. These trees can be seen as a problem because they can grow at a faster rate than some other native trees and take over areas. They’ll elbow out other maple trees with their shade tolerance, and in turn, block the sun from smaller trees.

Because they can grow in so many different conditions, these trees are often found in urban areas where their shallow root structures can still grow. You can identify a Norway maple by its wide, five-lobed leaves. However, if you look at the bark this will provide you with more clues to identification as the bark of a Norway Maple is a grayish-black color and has a furrowed texture. 

In the Fall, Norway maples are pretty lame. Unlike sugar, black, or red maples, a Norway maple does not change colors. Instead, their leaves tend to develop dark spots and fall to the forest floor before they get a chance to change colors.

Silver Maple Trees Have White Coloring Underneath Their Leaves

Silver maple trees can grow in many different types of soil and can survive through some periods of drought. These trees grow best in slightly warmer climates in the United States and Canada. 

A lot of maple leaves look the same, but our silver maple has a distinguishing feature that you can use to identify it! Although it is light green on top, just like other maples, the underside of the leaf is white. Additionally, you can look for five deep, sharp, and segregated lobes to confirm your observations. 

The bark of silver maple is grayish in color, but its leaves, with their white coloring underneath, are their biggest identifying factor. 

Silver maple trees can grow from 50’-80’ high and is one of the fastest-growing of all the maple trees. Some trees can reach 50’ in only 20 years of growth!

Where To Find Trees For Maple Syrup

Any species of maple tree can be tapped for syrup, along with some other non-maple trees, such as birch trees or black walnut trees. These trees, which have over 125 different species, can be found in different areas of the world, are commonly native to Asia, and can be found in different areas of Europe, as well as Northern Africa and North America. 

While maple trees can be found in many different places,  maple syrup production, as well as the trees that are tapped for their sap to make maple syrup, is located primarily in Southeast Canada and the Northeast United States. 

Trees should be tapped for maple syrup at the tail end of winter and the very beginning of spring for the best results. However, if you are planning on tapping trees for sap, you will want to start finding and identifying trees in the Fall. 

Fall is the best time of the year to find and identify trees for tapping. Why? Imagine trying to identify a maple tree by its leaves in the winter…there are no leaves! So, save yourself the hassle and plan ahead by scoping out trees in the fall.

How To Identify Trees For Maple Syrup

Sampler of pure maple syrup (golden, amber and gold) - small glass bottles against rustic wood

Once the leaves of the deciduous trees start to change color in Fall, it’s time to head out to identify trees that can be tapped for maple syrup. 

Bring a tape measure, something to mark the trees with, and a notebook to make notes on where the trees are. Or if you’re into futuristic stuff, you can document the trees you identify and their location with your phone. 

Identify Maple Syrup Trees By Their Leaves

If you are identifying trees to tap for syrup in the fall you will have the advantage of using the different color leaves to help with identification. You can use a field guide like this Guide To Maple Tapping: A Tree To Table Handbook For The Maple Tapper to help you identify the trees, tap them, and even learn to process the sap into syrup. 

You can also use an app on your phone to help you identify trees by the shape and fall coloring of their leaves.

You will also be looking at the shape of the leaves to identify which trees you want to use for tapping. Some maples will have three lobes, while others will have five. The edges of maple leaves can also be jagged or smooth. A good guidebook will help you identify the different leaf shapes. 

Make Sure The Maple Syrup Tree is 10 Inches Wide

Once you identify a type of tree that can be tapped for maple syrup, you will want to measure it to make sure it is tall enough and wide enough.

Measure the tree to be sure it is at least 10 inches wide. Next, you will want to measure that the tree is at least 4 feet tall from the ground. 

While 10 inches is the most commonly recommended width for tapping a tree for sap, the University Of New Hampshire’s article, Maple Syruping Tips For Beginners And Backyard Maple Sugar Producers notes that a tree should be no smaller than 12” in diameter to be tapped. 

Measuring the trees to confirm that they meet these initial requirements will help you choose trees that are both mature enough to give sap and are mature enough to withstand the process of taping without taking too much damage. 

Does Tapping For Syrup Hurt The Tree?

Tapping trees for syrup can harm the tree, but if you follow a few rules, the damage is minimal and heals over time as the tree grows.

First, you only want to tap a tree for syrup that is over four feet high and 10 inches around. Attempting to tap anything smaller and you could kill the tree. You will also want to use only one tap per tree. This yields the most sap and causes the least damage to the tree.

Finally, the time of the year you tap the tree is important for both retrieving the most sap and for preventing damage to the tree. Tapping the tree for sap when it is still freezing temperatures or below at night and slightly warmer during the day will give you the best results.

The Best Time To Tap Trees For Maple Syrup

Three pails attached to a maple tree to collect sap. Maple syrup production, springtime in quebec.

The ideal time of the year to tap trees for sap that you can turn into maple syrup is in the late winter, as soon as the season is about to turn to spring. More specifically, you will want to tap a tree when the nighttime temperatures are still freezing (at or under 32 degrees) and the day temperatures are a bit warmer.

The ideal temperature to get the sap flowing is when it is 20-32 degrees at night and no warmer than 40 degrees in the day.

When you tap the trees in warmer temperatures, the hole from your tap cold close up. When this happens you would have to re-tap the same tree, which is when you can start to cause damage. 

You can tap maple trees with simple equipment you may already have, or you can buy a Maple Syrup Tree Tapping Kit to get started.

Wrapping It Up!

Tapping trees for sap and making maple syrup is an old tradition that still remains popular today. When done correctly, you can tap maple trees for sap over a long period. The first step in sourcing trees for tapping is to learn what types of trees are best for making syrup.

Next, you will want to identify the trees that you want to tap. Following the steps above will help you get started with this much-loved early spring tradition of tapping maple trees for sap and making your own syrup.

References:

Copenheaver, Carolyn A., et al. “Decreased radial growth in sugar maple trees tapped for maple syrup.” The Forestry Chronicle 90.6 (2014): 771-777.

Ouimet, Rock, et al. “Effect of tapping for syrup production on sugar maple tree growth in the Quebec Appalachians.” Trees 35.1 (2021): 1-13.

Van den Berg, Abby K., et al. “Growth rates of sugar maple trees tapped for maple syrup production using high-yield sap collection practices.” Forest Science 62.1 (2016): 107-114.

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