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The Science of Syrup - Maple Syrup Season Starts!

Mar 21, 2013 12:00 AM

It’s that time of year again, and the local sugar-bush is offering up its annual treats! We thought it would be fun to dig around a little and find out the science behind Canada’s famous maple syrup. Most people know that it takes a lot of sap from the sugar maples to make syrup. 40 gallons of sap for every gallon of syrup to be exact! But what makes the sap start running in the first place? Why do maple trees even have sweet sap, and who discovered it?

Why are Maple trees so sweet anyways? Although every tree has sugar in its sap, it’s hard to get an exact reason why maples make so much! There are about 100 types of maple, and only about four of those produce sap with enough sugar in it to transform into syrup. The sugars in the sap are made in the leaves through the process of photosynthesis, and the amount made can really depend on the condition of the seasons. Lots of sunshine in the summer and autumn, and a cold winter generally make for the best sugaring in the spring. 

What makes the sap start moving? Fluctuating temperatures cause pressure that either pushes or pulls on the sap. In the fall, the cold drives it down, and when it warms in the spring, it draws it up! 

Where in the tree can I find the sap? In the sap wood! This is the part of the tree that sap can travel up in the spring, and down in the fall. It is the newly formed outer wood that is just under the bark; and on the outside of the part of the tree called the cambium. Sapwood also is lighter in colour than the heartwood, which lies in the centre of the tree and does not produce sap.

How far do you have to drill into the tree? Because sap wood lies just underneath the bark of the maple tree, drilling only needs to go about 8 to 10 centimetres, depending partly on how thick the bark is. 

How long will it take to get sap? As soon as you drill into the maple tree, and place your tap and bucket, the sap will start flowing out. Because the sap travels so close to the surface, it really takes no time at all, and just like a river, it takes the path of least resistance. But don’t be fooled, it can take between eight and ten hours just to fill up one standard sized sap pail! 

Who discovered maple syrup? North American Natives first tasted the sweet maple tree and started boiling down the sap. They shared their sweet secret with French settlers and colonists who then began boiling down their own batches of syrup.

Want to taste it for yourself? Mad Science has found some sweet Maple syrup activities for kids the whole family can enjoy!


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