Monday, February 4, 2019

Medicinal Monday - Magical Maple Syrup

Early in the spring, the magic of the maple begins. When the temperatures drop below freezing at night and go above freezing during the day, the sap of the sugar maple begins to run.  It rises up from the maple’s roots bringing sweetness and nourishment to the tree. When the trees start to bud (and the temperature gets a bit warmer) and the land awakens, the sap ceases running for the year.  Native Americans had many uses for maple syrup from using it to sweeten food and medicine to using it as a preservative.

A Native American maple sugar camp, 1853. Library of Congress

About the Maple 

The scientific name of sugar maple is Acer saccharum. This tree is native to North America and is the most commonly found species amongst the seven types of maples. It grows in abundance throughout southern Ontario, Nova Scotia, New England, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Mid-Atlantic states. 

 It grows in deep, well-drained moist slightly alkaline soil. Full sun and partial shade are preferred with a minimum of four hours of direct sunlight a day.  The sugar maple is a slow-growing tree with height increases of anywhere from 12 to 24 inches a year with an average height of 60 to 75' and a spread of 40-50' when this tree reaches maturity.  Some sugar maple trees can grow up to 100 feet tall in optimal conditions.

The brown buds of the sugar maple are pointed, and the color of the flowers range from pale to greenish yellow with the male flower being the pistillate and the female flower the staminate. It has dark green singlet leaves that grow to three to five inches long and are very smooth.  This tree produces huge quantities of seeds that provide food for animals. The seeds are also capable of germination.  In addition to the sap, this tree is also known for its' spectacular red-orange and yellow foliage in the fall.

An Ojibwe woman prepares birch bark containers to collect sap, 1908. Courtesy Library of Congress

Medicinal and Culinary Uses

Native Americans honored the maple tree in ceremonies each year to ensure good maple harvests.  The tribe would gather around the tree, also known as a "sugarbush" and address it in ritual language and offer the tree tobacco incense.  The sap was considered a delicacy and one Ojibwa legend mentions a maple syrup feast.  It was often prepared as a cool drink with herbs in the warm months and made into a hot tea with a variety of roots, leaves, and bark in the winter. It was also used as a basic seasoning year round, eaten with grains, fish, fruit, vegetables and dried berries.  Maple syrup could be stored for well over a year making it a valuable food source and was frequently eaten as candy for quick energy.  It was also used as a preservative.

The Mohegans used the inner bark as cough medicine and the Potawatomi used the inner bark as an expectorant.  The Iroquois made a decoction of maple leaves and used it as a wash for rashes. They also used an infusion of bark to treat sore eyes and blindness. One of the more interesting uses of the sap was as a blood purifier.

Did you know...

It takes at least forty years for a sugar maple tree to grow before it is big enough to tap.

On average, a tapped maple tree will produce ten to twenty gallons of sap per tap.  Most trees have just one tap.

The first full moon during sap running season is called the Maple Moon or the Sugar Moon.

The sugar maple is one of America's favorite trees and more states have claimed it as their state tree than any other species.

Squirrels, whitetail deer, snowshoe hares, and moose feed on the seeds, twigs, and leaves of the sugar maple.

John Smith was among the first settlers that noted the Native Americans' sugar processing and the fact that they used it for barter.

In 2001 baseball player Barry Bonds switched from an ash wood baseball bat to one made of maple and hit 73 home runs!

The national champion for the sugar maple is located in Charlemont, Massachusetts.  It is 112 feet tall with a diameter of 6.18 feet with a crown spread of 91 feet with a total point count of 368.

A sugar maple tree in Lyme, Connecticut measured in 2012 measured 123 feet tall with a circumference of 18.25 feet and a crown spread of 86 feet with a total point count of 364.

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