Monday, April 4, 2016

A Sweet Mystery Reveal

In case you missed it, here's what our mystery was this week:

As some of you readers probably knew, these are spiles, used for tapping maple trees.

What’s that? Well, I suppose you need to know how to tap a tree first. What “tapping” means is making a hole in the tree so sugary water (sap) can come out. This is done in late winter and very early spring because the sap freezes on colder nights. Then, during the day, the temperature is above freezing, the sap melts and can run freely out of the tree. Let the collecting begin! Later in the spring, trees begin to bud, which creates a chemical reaction within the trees. This usually makes for lower quality maple syrup.

A Brief History of Maple Sugaring
The earliest instances of collecting maple sap were done by native North Americans, who made slits in the sides of the maple trees and stuck a hollow twig or thin piece of bark into it. The sap would flow down into a wooden bucket placed on the ground. One “legend” explaining the discovery of maple syrup says that an Iroquois chief threw an axe into a tree, and the next day the tree leaked liquid. That day, the liquid was used to cook meat in, and they discovered it to have a sweet taste. Another story says that a branch of a maple tree broke off. From that fracture, sap flowed out and created an icicle, or “sapsicle,” which they realized had a sweet taste.

Eventually, instead of using an axe, which hurts the tree quite a bit (and can kill it if done too much), people started using augers to drill holes into the sides of trees. Our mystery artifacts were most likely used in conjunction with an auger. The hole is cut, and the narrow end was inserted into the tree. The sap then ran down into a container which was set underneath the spile, or in some cases hung directly onto the spile (which is why some of our mystery artifact examples have a metal hook on them). This is what a modern one might look like, although many people also use plastic spigots and tubing to guide the sap to its collection container:

From Sap to Sugar
From that you can make maple syrup. How? Heat. The clear, watery sap that comes out of the tree has to be cooked down to make the brown, sticky syrup we know and love on our waffles and pancakes. Native Americans heated up  rocks and put them into the sap to heat it up. Eventually, people moved on to cast iron pots. These days, there are specialized “evaporator pans” which continually heat and cook down large amounts of sap, making them more efficient when making a lot of syrup (hundreds of taps-worth, for example).  It takes a long time to cook the sap that a tree produces down to the maple syrup that we put on the table at breakfast. In general, 40 gallons of sap makes about 1 gallon of maple syrup. Why do all that work just for maple syrup? What makes it different from store bought? Well, a lot of the time, the syrup that they sell at the grocery store isn’t even made from real maple syrup. It’s usually corn syrup, sometimes with “maple flavor” added. And in my opinion the real stuff from the trees is far superior.

Maple Sugar Days at CCFPD
Did you know that this particular mystery artifact has a connection to our very own CCFPD? We have Sugar Maple grove (or “sugar bush” as they are sometimes called) at Homer Lake that was tapped commercially from 1890-1942. At one point, around 400 trees were tapped!
In fact, for years we have held a program at Homer Lake Forest Preserve called Maple Sugar Days where families can learn a little bit about the process of tapping trees and making maple syrup. I'll leave you today with a few pictures with one such program.

Sap in a sap bucket!

Boiling sap down into syrup.

Drilling the tap hole. 
Hammering the tap in.

As always, please come check out the mystery artifacts at the museum. And while you're at it, check out our great exhibits too!

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