March means maple syrup!

Maple syrup season is upon us. Find out more about this tasty topic and ways to engage youth in the process from tapping to eating.

Warm days, cold nights and melting snow translate into one thing: maple syrup! March is maple syrup season in Michigan. Now is a great time to take youth outdoors to experience the traditional syrup-making process to learn the history, culture and procedure for making this delicious table fare.

Maple syrup is made from the sap of maples, preferably sugar maple, Acer saccharum. Other trees such as birch and ash produce a sap that can be used for making syrup, but none compare to the delicious taste and popularity of the sugar maple. Approximately 40 gallons of maple sap is required to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. The sap can also be boiled down further to make maple sugar.

No one is quite sure the exact origins of maple sugar making, although it is relatively accepted that Native Americans were among the first to capture sap for making syrup. Many stories exist about how this originated from the Chippewa and Ottawa. These legends are very entertaining and exude great excitement from youth eager to hear them. Take time to share these stories with youth when engaging in any maple syrup activity.

European settlers quickly caught on to the taste and making of maple syrup. Syrup making became a pastime of farmers and families for extra income and their own use. Maple syrup making has grown to commercial size, but many small operations still exist today.

Maple syrup production is often referred to as “sugar bushing” as it is regularly done through snow in wooded areas. Often a shack is constructed for the collection and boiling of sap in a location close to the source of maple trees. There are many great opportunities for youth groups to visit and participate in the collection of sap and the boiling process. Try finding “locals” who might share the art of sugar bushing with a group of curious youngsters. They might even be put to work to earn a reward of some pure maple syrup! The Michigan Maple Syrup Association is a good place to look for local producers.

Maple syrup is enjoyed in numerous ways and not just on pancakes, waffles, French toast and other breakfast foods. It is used on a variety of other foods such as ice cream, pie, vegetables, cereal, meats and just about anything you find tasty. Spend some time with youth cooking, baking and preparing maple syrup in creative ways. It is fun and tasty!

The maple syrup making season is relatively short, lasting only about four to six weeks depending on weather. Now is a time to get out there! This is a specialty food and process that really should be experienced to appreciate. Better yet, try tapping a few trees on your own to gain first-hand knowledge of the process and rewards.

Michigan State University Extension encourages participation in new experiences that are safe and expose youth to science involvement with 4-H Science: Asking Questions and Discovering Answers.

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