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Aunt Jemima no more: Foodies make their own maple syrup

At Ontario’s Langdon Hall, executive chef Jonathan Gushue forages for ingredients including maple sap.

The Globe and Mail

Teresa Marrone could easily pick up a bottle of Aunt Jemima table syrup at her local corner store. But the Minneapolis, Minn., resident prefers to get the real thing from a much closersource: the two large maple trees right outside her front door.

Each year, about mid-March, Ms. Marrone drills one or two holes in the trunks of the sturdy, old sugar maples. She nails in hollow tubes, or spiles, and hangs jugs or buckets off them to catch the sap. Then, using a propane burner on her back patio, she heats the crisp, clear sap until most of the moisture boils off. She strains it and boils it a second time until it turns into a sweet, golden syrup that's perfect for pancakes.

Last year, she produced a respectable 5 1/2 litres of finished syrup. "That's a fair amount of syrup for an operation this size," Ms. Marrone says. "It's pretty funny that I'm able to get that much."

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A growing number of city dwellers across central and eastern United States and Canada are going beyond gardening or foraging and taking up urban maple syrup-making, tapping trees in private yards, parks and along roads and ravines. In recent weeks, they've set out taps in these unconventional places to take advantage of fluctuating springtime temperatures. During this peak syrup season, the warmer days and freezing nights cause pressure changes within the trees' root systems, creating a pumping effect that allows for the collection of sap.

Ms. Marrone, author of the foraging guide Abundantly Wild, says urban maple-tapping has begun to take off thanks to a growing public interest in how food is made.

"As food awareness increases and people are more aware of chemicals in food, or food recalls, or contaminated food or whatever, people are looking to go more natural …," she says. "Tapping your own trees and making your own syrup is about as natural and close to home as it can get."

Of course, tapping trees takes a bit of know-how, and those who do it recommend thoroughly researching the subject beforehand to ensure no damage is done to the trees. And depending on city bylaws and the health of the trees, finding the right ones to tap can be tricky.

Trees grown in urban settings are generally healthier and produce more sugar than those in the forest, Ms. Marrone says, since they're frequently watered and have more room and light to grow. While sugar maples are usually expected to produce one gallon of syrup for every 40 gallons of sap, the ones in her yard yielded a sap to syrup ratio of about 35 to 1.

In Toronto, however, Laura Reinsborough says her urban fruit-picking group Not Far from the Tree decided to tap Norway maples for an urban syrup-making pilot project this year instead of the more commonly tapped sugar maple. Even though Norway maples have a much lower sap to syrup ratio, sugar maples are less hardy in her city, she says.

After consulting arborists and developing a plan, Not Far from the Tree was given a green light from Toronto authorities to collect sap from several trees in participating residents' backyards.

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But anyone interested in tapping their own trees should submit applications to the city, as even trees grown on private property are protected under city bylaws, Ms. Reinsborough says. As is the case in many other municipalities, it's prohibited to tap trees on Toronto city property, including those growing in parks and along the grassy strips between the sidewalks and curbs on residential streets, she adds.

Besides regulations, there are also issues of decorumto consider.

In central Massachusetts, urban maple syrup hobbyists recently came under fire for tapping trees in cemeteries, which local authorities chided as "tacky," Associated Press reported last week.

Novice urban tapper Maggie Sullivan of Bloomington, Ind., says such a move wouldn't go over well in her area either.

"Indiana [has]a very big property-rights kind of social culture," she says, noting that even urban foraging causes tension.

As a rule, she advises, ask for permission before tapping trees on other people's property.

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"I would not take apples from my neighbour's tree, or even mushrooms that they don't know necessarily are growing in their yard, and I think I would feel the same about maple tapping."

On her initial attempt at tapping the trees in her backyard last year, Ms. Sullivan acknowledges, she wasn't entirely successful. Although she was able to collect about four litres of sap a day from her two large maples, she didn't have a cool place to store it. By the time she collected enough to boil it down, the sap had already begun to ferment.

Ms. Sullivan suggests having a schedule to regularly check the trees while the sap is running and to ensure the sap is properly stored. She also recommends setting up a bonfire or a burner outdoors to boil the sap off, since the huge amount of steam created during the boiling process is enough to make kitchen wallpaper peel away.

To boost the fun factor and increase efficiency, get the neighbours involved, she says.

"I think to be really successful, people should have … sap boiling parties. That's what I would do if I did it again."

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