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Maple tree

GAYS MILLS - As the ‘sugaring’ season comes to a close, let’s take a look at the amazing trees that produce such a wonderful thing as maple syrup.  (And sugar, the syrup can be boiled down beyond the syrup stage to produce actual sugar.)  The most common, and best, sap source for syrup making is the sugar maple. There are 200 varieties of maples worldwide; 13 of those varieties are native to North America.

Other maples can be tapped for sap but the higher sugar content of the sugar maple sap makes it superior. The sugar in sap is 63 percent sucrose and 1 percent glucose and fructose. Sap can vary between 1 and 12 percent sugar as it comes from the tree, but a good working average is about three percent.  Most of the sap is water, which of course needs to be removed, usually by boiling, to make syrup.

The sugar maple is the national tree of Canada and the state tree of Wisconsin and three other states: Vermont, New York, and West Virginia.  The large, stately trees look good all year but are especially showy when their leaves turn color in the fall. Leaf peeping tourists travel for miles to see leaves when they turn from green to orange, red, crimson, and yellow. A typical sugar maple will have about 160,000 leaves which makes quite a display as a single tree.   A stand of many maples at their peak of color is worth a trip to see. And our hills and valleys offer spectacular views of color every fall.

Something I’ve often marveled at is that silver maples and some elms produce their seeds in the spring or early summer as compared to most other trees that produce seeds at the end of a growing season. Those maple seeds are borne on the wings of double winged samaras, also-called maple keys that look like a drooping mustache.  The ‘helicopters’ do their part in spreading a stand of maples if given a chance to sprout and grow. But the odds are greatly stacked against an individual seed: a tree may produce 150,000 seeds per year and very few of them sprout and grow.

Maple wood is prized for use in furniture, flooring and baseball bats. Maple is known as a tone wood that carries sound well so it is used to make musical instruments such as clarinets, oboes, and stringed instruments. In years past, local maple wood was sold as “pin wood.” It went to make bowling pins. Some maple wood has distinctive decorative grain patterns such as flame maple, birds eye maple, and burl wood. My friend Joe makes furniture and cabinets and seeks out something called spalted maple for cabinets. Spalted maple is wood, which has started to decay due to fungus infestation. Caught early and dried, the wood is stabilized and the spalting patterns are very dramatic.

Our giant deciduous neighbors, the maple trees, have a lot to offer: scenery, syrup, shade, and something to build with.