Maple syrup, molasses, treacle, pancake syrup; whatever you may refer to this product as maple syrup is a widely beloved addition to many dishes across North America. The sweet flavor is delicious without being too thick and sugary, making this a staple in many households.
Maple syrup is made from the sap of a maple tree, while only a few subspecies can produce sap for maple syrup. Sugar, black, red, silver, and boxelder maple trees all produce the kind of sap that can be turned into maple syrup. You should tap these trees during early spring for best results.
So, which species of maple produce sap that can be turned into syrup and are there any major differences? Truthfully, the sugar maple is only one of the many species that can produce sap, and there are many similarities and differences between it and its relatives. Don’t take our word for it; keep reading and learn for yourself!
Which 5 Maple Trees Are Best For Syrup?
While sugar maples are going to be the most obvious choice, there are also four other trees that fit into this category. In reality, syrup can come from many different types of trees, but maple syrup is a rare commodity when compared to all the varieties of trees out there that cannot produce it.
So, which other trees can produce sap that turns into maple syrup? Here are the most common maple trees that can be tapped for maple syrup.
Boxelder Maple Tree
Research from Saint John’s University found that boxelder maples actually have a higher sugar content than even sugar maples do, at 2.59% average sugar concentration versus a sugar maple’s 1.72%. However, the sugar content does not necessarily mean that the flavor is going to be up to par with the expectations of the masses. Unless you’re fond of a sort of leafy addition to the flavor complexity of the syrup, that is.
Of course, depending on your methods of turning sap into syrup, this could potentially be eradicated to create equally delicious maple syrup.
This species can be picked out of the crowd by looking at the leaves. As opposed to the symmetrically lobed leaves of most maples, those of a boxelder tend to be much more compounded and clustered together. So, if you see a tree that sounds like it might be a boxelder, perhaps you will look elsewhere before tapping it for its sap.
Red Maple Tree
In something of a similar fashion to the boxelder maple, the red maple sap is less sweet. Due to its buds breaking, or expanding into flowers in the spring, earlier than those of the sugar maple, the red maple has less time for the sweetness of its sap to fully develop into a mature flavor.
This flowering early in the season not only gives the sap less time to develop but also means that the harvesting time for the sap is going to be shorter than that of some other maple trees.
You may be wondering how you can tell the difference between the species of maple tree, and one telltale sign of a red maple tree is the color of their samaras, often known as ‘helicopters,’ which are their double-winged seeds.
You can read more on the major differences between oak trees and maple trees here.
On many maples, the samaras are green during the springtime, while they are a noticeably brighter shade of red on their aptly named host, the red maple tree.
Silver Maple Tree
Silver maples grow quickly and can get pretty large, so they are a common species of maple across North America. The flavor of this tree’s syrup yield is often described as having butterscotch tones. Unlike some other species that may have a bitter or less developed flavor, the silver maple does well enough when it comes to holding its own.
How can a silver maple tree be distinguished from its many relatives? The underside of the leaf holds the key to this question. The leaf itself is more similar to the shape of other maple leaves, boxelder’s aside, but its coloring is what helps to distinguish it as the silver maple.
Haven’t you guessed it yet? That’s okay! The silver maple leaf, when viewed from the underside, has a silvery hue that sets it far apart from maple species like red and black.
So, not only is the hue this the tree’s namesake but a feature that helps define that it is, in fact, a silver maple tree.
Black Maple Tree
This is an interesting one because it is sometimes referred to as the ‘black sugar maple.’ Why is that, exactly?
Well, the University of Maine notes some authorities say that rather than being a completely separate species, the black oak maybe a subspecies of the sugar maple.
The black maple is a bit less common than the sugar maple, but they do come from the eastern parts of North America, so it is not surprising to learn that they may be more related than once believed.
Additionally, these trees have the ability to cross and form hybrids—just one more thing to make classification a little trickier at times, even more, the professionals.
Let’s go back to the real question at hand. Does that mean anything when it comes to the black maple tree’s sap?
Yes and no.
The sap of a black maple is actually fairly similar to that of the closely related sugar maple, but it does produce less sap overall. So, though the flavor is similar, if you are factoring in the amount of sap yielded overall, sugar maple is going to be the standout choice.
Sugar Maple Trees Are Best For Syrup
Okay, so we keep talking about sugar maples but let’s really get into why they are so popular when it comes to producing sap and, in turn, syrup.
Sugar maples can be tapped just as any other broadleaf deciduous tree can, most commonly maples, but there are a few reasons why this is a better choice when it comes to all of your sap-related needs.
Sugar maples have a sugar content that is close to 3%. It has been shown that, on average, 2.59% sugar content can be expected.
Doesn’t sound like much? We get it, but in comparison to the 1% range of average sugar concentration in other syrups, it is clear that the sugar maple is the most popular for a reason.
When it comes to both yield and flavor, sugar maple sap is sweeter and flows for longer than some others.
Can You Eat Maple Syrup Straight From The Tree?
People have been eating raw sap in many capacities for longer than we know of, and it can be okay.
However, you’ll want to follow this good tip when it comes to tapping trees for sap. As you drill the hole for your tap, pay close attention to the color of the shavings. Light wood shavings indicate a healthy sap will come next, while dark shavings are a sign of sap that is no longer desirable for production of any kind.
Not only does this apply to wanting to use raw sap, but to ensure that you are not wasting your time processing sap that is not ideal.
There are a few other nuances you should follow if you’re going to eat maple sap straight from the tree. Better yet, take a peek at our guide on how to eat syrup straight from the tree!
4 Steps To Tapping For Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is delicious and amazing, but the sap has to be retrieved before this wonderful sweet treat can be enjoyed.
If you already have a sugar maple, tapping the tree is a great thing to do. However, planting new sugar maples is not recommended due to the hindrance they cause in the growth of other tree species.
Luckily, we are going to break down the steps for you below. If you’re interested in tapping trees locally (of course, you definitely are,) go and search your state’s local governance pages for guides on the deciduous trees near you and get tapping instructions!
1. Tap Your Tree During Early Spring
The early spring months are the best time to tap for sap. This is because the fluctuation in temperatures during this early stage of the season helps the sap to run more easily when a tree is being tapped.
At night, temperatures will ideally fall near or below freezing while the daylight hours are a bit more temperate, in the 40 to 50-degree range.
Any time as early as January, depending on the extremity of the weather in your area, through as late as April is going to be the ideal period to tap your tree. March, realistically, is going to be the safest bet if you are just tapping a tree or two. The sap runs more easily during the late winter/spring.
If you’ve got multiple on your property and are hoping to yield a bunch of syrup in the end, go ahead and start early. It’s all up to you!
When does the maple tapping season end?
When temperatures stay above freezing and leaf buds appear, the season is over. This is why red maples are not nearly as reliable; their buds appear early on in the season, leaving next to no time to procure their sap.
Keep in mind that you should follow the weather in your area, more so than a specific month, to decide when you are going to tap your trees.
2. Find The Right Sized Maple Tree to Tap
You’ll want a tree that is mature enough to be tapped. If the tree is too young, you could severely harm or even kill it by drilling into it in the way that is necessary for tapping.
The Missouri Department of Conservation tells us that a maple tree that has matured to at least 4 feet tall and 10 inches in diameter is alright to start being tapped for sap. While fully mature trees can handle a few taps at once, but no more than 3 is advised, using a single tap is thought to yield the best results.
By using one tap, the tree will not be overworked and can provide sap more quickly and of better quality in the long run.
3. Place The Tap To Get Syrup
Now, onto the fun part.
Your hole for tapping sap should be drilled between 2 to 4 feet off the ground, hence the reason that a tree needs to be at least 4 feet to be safely and successfully tapped. You’ll want to be able to place your spile (the spout that drains the sap) in a bit of an upward direction, as well.
The spile should go a few inches into the tree in order to reach the sap but not go too far, which might cause extra stress on the tree. This placement will allow the sap to flow directly into your bucket with ease.
4. Check Your Bucket Frequently For Sap
Speaking of your bucket, you’ll want to check at least one time a day. Some days, you may have plenty of space in your bucket and not need to collect anything, but other days might require you to collect sap more frequently.
This also all depends on the size of the bucket you are using. Something between 1 and 2 gallons will need to be checked much more regularly than a 3 to 4-gallon bucket. That extra gallon or two is the difference between collecting sap multiple times a day and being able to check once daily, even taking a day off here and there.
Now, processing the sap is a whole different story. This will depend more upon which type of tree you obtained your sap from and what you want your syrup to turn out like, among other factors. But we hope this helps you find a good starting point in your syrup production journey!
That’s All For Now!
Now that we’ve learned a little more about the tree tapping process, from which trees produce sap to how to obtain the sap, it’s clear that this is a relatively rare opportunity. Not all trees produce sap and, while there are other tappable trees, maples are a species to be celebrated for their delicious sugary production.
Remember that sugar maples are always going to be your best bet when it comes to producing and tapping for syrup.
However, black, red, silver, and boxelder maple trees can also produce syrup. There are a few other maple trees that can produce maple syrup – but these are your best bet!
They may yield less sap than sugar maples, but they’ll do the trick well enough. Especially if you’ve got one of these species in your backyard and are not looking to produce a large quantity of syrup but rather want a fun family project or simply your own jar of maple syrup.
Maple sap, maple syrup, and any product of these baser items are relatively easy to make but are fun and add some flavor to any spring day.
Malone, C. (1976). Tapping the Sugar Maple–Learning and Appreciating. Communicator.
Perkins, T. D., & van den Berg, A. K. (2009). Maple syrup—Production, composition, chemistry, and sensory characteristics. Advances in food and nutrition research, 56, 101-143.
van den Berg, A. K., Perkins, T. D., Isselhardt, M. L., & Wilmot, T. R. (2016). Growth rates of sugar maple trees tapped for maple syrup production using high-yield sap collection practices. Forest Science, 62(1), 107-114.
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