Maple Sugaring 101: Time to Identify Your Trees!

July 6, 2018

It’s walk-in-the-woods time here in sugar country. For those many of us without air conditioning, the shade of the trees is a welcome respite from the heat of the sun, as long as you move faster than the bugs do. It’s as good a time as any to make good on your goal of identifying some maples (or some more maples) for your subsistence maple sugar making operation! So grab a water bottle, and get out there!

The Maple Sugaring 101 Tree Identification Tool Kit: A Book and A Pair of SunglassesThe Maple Sugaring 101 Tree Identification Tool Kit: A Book and A Pair of Sunglasses

It’s walk-in-the-woods time here in sugar country. For those many of us without air conditioning, the shade of the trees is a welcome respite from the heat of the sun, as long as you move faster than the bugs do. It’s as good a time as any to make good on your goal of identifying some maples (or some more maples) for your subsistence maple sugar making operation! So grab a water bottle, and get out there!

There are about a zillion resources for tree identification, especially online. There’s probably “an app for that,” too. But I’m partial to books. So, last weekend, somewhere in between pulling weeds, finally staining the deck, and reconfiguring the chicken fence (again) to cut down on escapees (and, again, failing) I grabbed a volume and took a little walk.

We sugar mostly with red maples. The sugar content of the sap is lower, so it takes a bit more work, but the syrup tastes just the same. And reds are what we have. So we use them.

Red maples are also called “swamp maples.” They live in swamps, bottomlands and uplands in moist soils. They are hearty trees, grow to 50-70 feet tall, and presumably get their name either from the scarlet color they turn in the fall, the color of the winged seeds they produce in the springtime, or both.

Red maples will tolerate a wider range of conditions than the sugar maple, including variations in the climate, so even for us amateur makers, it’s worth knowing your reds, even if you have plenty of sugars. Science suggests they will fare well despite our warming climate. So, as it happens, there’s a little good news to take with the bad.

The leaves of a red maple are from 2 to 6 inches wide. They look to me like they are 3 lobed rather than 5 lobed (lobes are the sections of the leaf), although technical definitions seem to allow for both. And they have a saw-toothed jagged edge to them with not a smooth curve anywhere. For me, that’s the key.


2 maple leaves on wood background

The Leaf of the Red Maple: Red Maples are Also Tapped to Make Maple Syrup
Our sugarbush is very dense, so most of the leaves are far enough up in the air that I have to squint a bit to see them. But, I was able to find a few leaves around the base of my reds as proof that I had squinted effectively.

And then there are the sugars. Sugar maples, so named because of the high concentration of sugar in their sap, grow even bigger than red maples, 60-80 feet, and naturally occur in rich, moist soils in uplands and valleys. In addition, however, sugar maples have been planted along roadways and at the edges of pasture lands for hundreds of years, and can still be found thus anywhere that farming is or ever was.

row of sugar maplesSugar maples are the best trees for maple syrup making!
The leaf of a sugar maple is 3-5 inches wide and has 5 lobes, with a smooth, curved edge where the leaf of the red maple is jagged. (In the Fall, sugar maples are likely to look multicolored, showing green as well as hints of yellow, orange and/or red as their chlorophyll recedes.)

The few sugar maples we have are out in the open, and so have developed a crown that extends far enough toward the ground so that I don’t have to squint or forage for ground-leaves to make my identification. The sugar maple is so iconic. It’s as easy as that.

sugar maple leaf on wood backgroundThe Leaf of the Sugar Maple

So if you’re thinking about sugaring next spring, don’t underestimate the value of taking a short stroll through your woods to map out your sugar stand, now. Much like the weeds and chickens, this task won’t wait forever. The air will cool, and those leaves WILL fall eventually!