As winter starts to wind down, we enter the perfect time for “sugar weather” in the Northeast and Midwestern parts of the United States. This is the time of year when temperatures are mild enough that the sap starts to flow in trees. For certain types of trees, specifically maple trees, this sap can be converted into the maple syrup that can be added to your favorite breakfast dish.
So, whip up some syrup-covered pancakes, a healthy smoothie, and start learning about the sweet trees of nature.
Teaching Nature with Maple Syrup
Sweets are a great incentive for many things, but they are also the lesson in this case!
If you really want to get the kids interested in the lesson, start talking about trees by enjoying their products. Go ahead and make a batch of fluffy pancakes topped with some maple syrup. If you want to splurge, you can get the real deal, but the store-bought syrup brands work just as well for this nature activity.
Alternatively, you can go out for breakfast at your favorite restaurant before setting out on a hike.
Where Does Syrup Come From?
Get the kids thinking by asking them where the syrup on their pancakes came from. You can expect answers like “the fridge” or “the store” initially. Let their minds wander a bit as they start to think outside of the box.
After revealing that maple syrup comes from trees, encourage them to think creatively again- how could this come from a tree? (Remember, part of outdoor education is letting children explore to see where their curiosity takes them).
Springtime is sometimes known as “sugar weather” by sugarmakers, or people who collect the sap to be turned into syrup. Temperature changes affect everyone, us, the birds, and the trees! If you have started birding with your kids, you may notice different birds than you did back in February. This is because warmer temperatures provide better conditions for birds to live in.
You may also see some early signs of trees thawing and coming back to life, like buds or the beginnings of leaves. When these trees warm up, their sap starts to flow. Like blood flowing through our veins, sap flows through a tree, transporting essential nutrients and minerals to encourage growth.
The type of sap we use for syrup is a little different, though- it serves as “food” for the tree. This sugary sap is created by photosynthesis, a process where sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide mix in the plant to develop sugar (a great energy source).
How Do We Get the Sap?
Sugarmakers harvest sap, similar to how farmers harvest crops. Around springtime, these workers will “tap” or drill a hole into a tree. This can only be done on very specific trees because not all sap is sweet enough to make syrup.
Once a hole is drilled, a bucket will be connected to the tap and tubing system. Over the next 4-6 weeks, the bucket will fill with the tree’s sap. The weather determines how quickly those buckets fill- the ideal conditions are freezing nights with mild days.
How to Identify the “Sweet Trees”
If the weather permits, this would be an excellent time for a hike. You can walk around the neighborhood or in a forest preserve, just make sure there is at least one tree nearby, and don’t forget to take the Outdoor Safety pledge!
While it’s easier to identify trees by their leaves, there are tricks to identifying sugar maples during the wintertime, when all of the leaves are gone.
Start to look at the trees around you and find ways that they differ from each other. In the winter and early spring, focus in on the bark and the different sizes of trees. Sugar maple bark is dark and furrowed and appears to have deep ridges. Make sure to feel the textures of the tree trunks or roots on the ground if they’re sticking out.
Next, look at the branches. Do the twigs mirror each other, or do they alternate? It may be a sugar maple if they have opposite branching, where the twigs are across from each other.
Finally, you can look at the buds at the very end of a branch. Sugar maples have buds that are brown and pointed. This differs from many other buds that tend to be rounded with brighter colors.
How Does the Sap Become Syrup?
Once the sap is collected, it is typically transported to a “sugarhouse.” There the workers will need to boil the sap until it becomes much sweeter and takes on a golden-brown color.
It takes a lot of sap to make maple syrup because sap is 98% water and 2% sugar. When it’s boiled, it loses water, making the product even sweeter. This means that buckets and buckets of sap may only make one tiny bottle of syrup!
Further Tree Education
Just like with birds, you can find numerous apps, books, or websites that help with tree identification. If your kids enjoyed identifying sugar maples, look up the other trees that grow in your area. Be sure to create your own tree identification book when the leaves are back on the trees in the summer.
If they enjoyed talking about the maple syrup process, dig further into photosynthesis and discuss how trees grow and take care of themselves. It’s a great opportunity to discuss tree rings, roots, and all of the other things trees give us, like oxygen and wood.
If they were only interested in the pancakes, that’s ok too! Remember that natural curiosity is a big part of outdoor education, and you’ll need to try new activities to find out what they like. Happy hiking and enjoy those pancakes!