Sugar maple trees brighten Ohio woodlands in autumn with their luminous shades of gold that seem to radiate their own light. As the papery golden gems fall to the ground, they continue to delight children of all ages who savor the thrill of diving into a colorful pile of crisp leaves and breathing their earthy fragrance. Only after the showy display of fall foliage has drifted away on cold December winds, and the January snows have traced the outline of its shapely branches, is the sugar maple's inner beauty ready to shine.
Ohio's native inhabitants knew of the sweet treasure within the bark of the sugar maple tree even before Christopher Columbus set sail on his famous voyage. Centuries ago, as winter's bitter chill was softened by bright February sunshine, tomahawks were driven into the bark of Ohio's stately maples. The sticky sap, called Sinzibuckwud (drawn from wood) or Sheesheegummawis (sap flows fast) in Native American languages, was caught in hollowed-out logs as it flowed from the gash in the tree. Rocks heated over the fire were dropped into the pool of sap, causing it to boil. After many hours of patient stirring and reheating, the boiling sap thickened into sweet syrup that could transform humble cakes of coarse grain into a delectable treat.
A century before Ohio achieved statehood, Native Americans taught the European settlers how to collect and boil maple sap to make syrup. The settlers bored holes in the tree bark and placed tubes fashioned from hollowed-out sticks in the holes. They collected the sap in wooden buckets, and heated it directly over the fire in metal kettles.
Today, a specialized kind of metal spout, called a spile, is placed into a hole drilled into the trunk of a mature maple. The sap may be collected in galvanized buckets or plastic bags hung on the spiles, or it may be gravity fed through plastic tubes to a central collection point. Evaporators fueled by natural gas, coal or wood have replaced the kettles perched over open fires.
The summer sun powers the tree's sugar-making factory. Green leaves produce sugars and carbohydrates through the process of photosynthesis to provide energy for the tree's growth. As autumn approaches, surplus sugar is stored in the tree's roots for the winter. As spring approaches and temperatures climb, the sugar is drawn up through living tissues within the trunk to aid the growth of new leaf buds. This is maple syrup time. To ensure the best results and protect the trees, only trees that are at least ten inches in diameter are tapped. A tree may be tapped several times without damage, provided that each new hole is drilled in a new location, and previously drilled holes are allowed to heal.
What was once a skill for survival in the wilderness is now a fun and rewarding activity filled with nostalgia. Each February and March, Hueston Woods, Indian Lake and Malabar Farm state parks host maple syrup festivals to commemorate this rite of spring. See the calendar of events for details.