By Kelly Burch
---- — It’s sticky, sweet, and tastes great on pancakes. But besides that, how much do you know about maple syrup?
Not much? The Mass Audubon society can help.
Warmer days and freezing nights mean the sap is running. That means the maple enthusiasts at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield are welcoming crowds of visitors eager to learn where their syrup comes from.
“We’re going to show you how we magically transform sap into syrup,” said Scott Santino, the sanctuary naturalist.
On a recent snowy morning, Santino was speaking to a large crowd that included many children, college students, and adults. He turned the tour over to Angela Walsh, a sanctuary field teacher. She led the group to one of the sanctuary’s many trees, and taught them how to identify a sugar maple by it’s egg shape, opposite branching, and chocolate brown buds.
“Yum, chocolate,” she said. “Doesn’t that sound delicious?”
But the real treat was not the buds, nor chocolate. Rather, it’s in what runs food to them.
During the summer and fall months, sugar maples, like all trees, photosynthesize light and water to form food. The extra nutrients that the tree makes are stored in sap. The sap keeps the tree healthy during the winter, and helps to push the leaves from those chocolate-brown buds in the spring.
“The sap feeds the tree from within,” Walsh said. “That’s why we don’t want to take more than the tree can sustain.”
During the late winter and early spring, sap is moving up toward the branches during the warm days, and back to the roots to protect the tree during freezing nights. Tapping a sugar maple takes advantage of this natural movement of the sap.
“The trees naturally drip sap when its warm,” Walsh said. “From any kind of cut, bird hole, or opening.”
With that, Walsh invited the group to see and taste the sap that has collected from a tap in this tree.
It looks and tastes like water. In fact, that’s mostly what it is. Directly from the tree, sap is about 97 percent water, and only 3 percent sugar. However, some people don’t seem to mind.
“I like it,” said 4-year-old Isabelle Westcott, who was on the tour with her grandparents.
The rest of the children on the tour agreed.
At the next stop, naturalist Scott Santino met the group at the “Teaching Tree,” to demonstrate how to tap a sugar maple.
A tree should be tapped on the south side, he said, which receives the most sun. The tap should be placed away from any previous taps and should be driven about 2 inches into the trunk, where it will sit in the sap wood. From there, gravity will do its work, sending the sap slowly dripping into the collection bucket, at about the rate of a leaky faucet.
The final stop on the tour is the sugaring house, where volunteer Rick Oberg believes he has the best job in the sanctuary: running the evaporator.
“The syrup is already made for us,” he told the tour group. “But there is so much water in there it’s hard to find it.”
That’s where the evaporator comes in. The simple set-up – a huge pan over a raging fire, evaporates all the extra water and transforms sap to syrup, which has a much higher sugar content.
“It’s all about the heat. That’s the one and only ingredient we add to make maple syrup,” Oberg says.
To finish the tour, guests get to try a sample of thick, brown maple syrup. It’s hard to believe it’s essentially the same as the watery substance that came out of a tree only steps away.
That’s the magic, Santino said.
Jennifer Bisset of Peabody came to the tour with her two young children, James, 6, and Julia, 4.
“Pancakes are Julia’s favorite food, so we came to see how syrup is made,” she said. “The tour was great, and tasty. The enthusiasm of the tour guides was great for the kids.”
It’s no secret where that enthusiasm comes from.
“I love sugaring,” said Angela Walsh. “This is a really great time of year.”
If You Go What: Maple Sugaring Tours. Where: Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield. When: Saturdays and Sundays through March 17. How: Adults $9, Children $8. Advanced registration required, by calling 978-887-9264 or emailing email@example.com.