Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Sugar Bush
Nature Bulletin No. 220-A   Msrch 5, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

About this time of year in our northern states, when a cold clear night is followed by a warm sunny day, you know that spring is just around the corner and that, as they say in New England, "Sap's a-startin"'. Then you see squirrels in the maple trees, nibbling at little icicles of sap from broken twigs or wounds in the bark.

For the farmer who owns a "sugar bush" -- a grove of sugar maple trees -- this means perhaps a month of hard tedious work for himself and his family and his hired help: tapping the trees, collecting the sap, and "boiling it down" into maple sugar and maple syrup. There will also be at least one "sugaring-off" party, at night, with hot buttered soda biscuits dunked in thin hot maple syrup, and maple candy pulled into taffy by the young folks.

The piles, pails and barrels for collecting the sap, and the big iron kettles or the long metal "evaporators" for boiling it, have been scoured and made ready at the "sugar camp". Plenty of wood for fuel has been cut and piled. Now the trees must be tapped by drilling holes, with half-inch augers, at about waist height, about 2 inches deep and slanting slightly upward -- from one to three taps per tree, depending on its age and health. The tree must be at least 40 years old and sugar maples do not yield their maximum until they are about 80 years old. Into each hole is inserted a metal spout, called a "spile", on which is hung a pail.

Old-timers say that sap starts flowing earlier on the south and east sides of a tree but a tap on the north sides gives the longest run. The flow is very sensitive to weather changes, slowing down when there are strong cold winds, stopping altogether in a prolonged cold snap, best when the nights are frosty and the days are warm and sunny. An average season lasts about a month, with the sap flowing on about one- half of the days. A prolonged warm spell causes the buds to swell on the trees and ends the season. The late "buddy" sap has a woody taste. The early sap makes the finest syrup and sugar. A good tree will yield from 2 to 3 gallons per day. From 4 to 6 gallons are required to make one pound of maple sugar, and 30 gallons or more are required to make one gallon of syrup.

Maple sugar was one of the Indians most important foods. Salt was a scarce article, so they seasoned almost all their cooking, especially meats, with maple sugar in lieu of salt. They allowed some sap to sour into vinegar, and fermented some to make an alcoholic drink, They cooked venison with vinegar and then sweetened it with maple sugar - - similar to the sweet-sour cookery of the Germans and other Europeans. They drank the sap, sometimes adding the sap of box elder, silver maple, yellow birch, black birch, or shagbark hickory. The children poured thick syrup on snow to make candy, as our children do, or greased their hands and pulled it into taffy.

The Indian cut a diagonal or a V-shaped gash in a tree with his stone ax. His spiles were of alder, elderberry or sumac -- from which the pithy center could be easily pushed out or were spouts whittled from yellow birch. Some collected the sap in hollowed-out 3 foot lengths of basswood or white pine. Some used vessels of birch bark, with the inner bark on the outside, sewed with basswood fibers and waterproofed with pitch from boiling Jack pine cones. The sugar was stored in "mokoks" -- birchbark vessels sometimes shaped like a canoe, or like an animal, but usually like the lower half of a pyramid.

Only his mother could love a sap from the "family tree".

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