Sugar Maple: A New York Native With A Treat

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VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — Sugar Maple is New York’s state tree and has one well-known, particularly sweet feature: syrup.

Michael Blachek of Sugar Creek Maple Farm in Vestal has been tapping trees since the 70s. Tapping is the process of collecting sap from the tree. Sap is boiled down to make syrup. Other trees can be tapped for sap, including birch and walnut.

 

Michael Blachek of Sugar Creek Maple Farm teaches WSKG’s Nancy Coddington how to tap a tree. First a hole is drilled and then a spigot, called a spile, is hammered in. (Sarah Gager/WSKG)

To tap a tree, a hole is drilled into the tree and then a spigot, called a spile, is hammered into the hole. On a small scale, a hose can be connected to the spile and led into a bucket. But Blachek taps 420 trees, so sap is vacuumed out of the trees using a connecting system of tubes that makes it faster and easier to collect sap from hundreds of trees at once.

Blachek’s land has been in his wife’s family since the 1800s.

“They always made syrup for the family.”

Today, Blachek has really flourished in the maple syrup craft. The 420 trees he taps which will make about 40 gallons worth the sap an hour which boils down to less than a gallon of syrup.

The boiling process happens in a small barn called a sugar house or sugar shack. In there, you can see that the electric drill isn’t the only update to the farm.

Michael Blachek standing outside his sugar shack. The blue tubbing carries sap which is collected from hundreds of trees. Sarah (Gager/WSKG)

“We’re all the modern technologies here,” Blachek said. “It looks rustic on the inside but inside we use modern evaporator, behind me is a reverse osmosis filter which any major… down to even minor now producer has to have a reverse osmosis filter. If not, it takes an awful lot of fuel to make syrup.” The reverse osmosis filter Blachek uses removes about 60 gallons of water an hour.

Then you just boil it down—evaporating the water and caramelizing the sugar—until it’s syrup.

A cross-section of a tree that had been tapped many times over the years. Tapping does not hurt the tree. Spiles are removed to allow the hole to heal. This tree was over 130-years-old when it was taken down by a wind storm. (Sarah Gager/WSKG)

Indigenous Americans did things a little differently. They would leave sap outside because the water would freeze, concentrating the sugar content of the sap. They stored it in hollowed out logs.

“They would heat up rocks in fires and then drop them in the hollowed out logs to boil the sap down to a crystalized sugar that was easier to store and trade than the syrup,” explained Daniel Waldorn of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.*

Maples live hundreds of years, but Waldhorn says they’re sharply in decline likely due to a combination of factors, including acid rain and climate change.

Sugar Maples are a major component of Northern Hardwood Forests, which is one of the most common forest ecotypes in New York.

Rosy Maple Moth. (Daniel Waldhorn/DEC)

Maples provide nectar for pollinators in early spring. They are host to insects including the Rosy Maple Moth, a fuzzy yellow moth with pink and yellow wings and little pink antennae. Many birds and mammals eat the maples twigs and foliage.

“The bark makes up a large percentage of a porcupine’s diet,” Waldhorn added. The wood is valuable lumbar to humans, too.

The maple leaf is an iconic image. Its silhouette is the main feature of the Canadian flag, where it’s the national tree. The seeds are shaped sort of like a wing. In the late summer, they spiral gently to the ground, but, in late winter, as the temperatures fluctuate, the sap will flow.

*Full Disclosure: The New York DEC is a WSKG underwriter.