Sandy’s Garden

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Sugar Maple

I have recently returned from a delightful cruise down the St. Laurence River, round Nova Scotia and thence along the eastern seaboards of Canada and the United States as far as Fort Lauderdale. And, while Canadian weather in the fall had a lot in common with Scottish weather in the Autumn, being predominantly overcast and dull while I was there, it was in Canada that I saw some of the finest fall colours, none more glorious than the bright red leaves of the Sugar Maple, the tree whose leaf forms the Canadian flag and whose sap is used in the production of that most distinctive of North American foodstuffs, maple syrup.

The Sugar Maple tree is a member of the family of trees called Acers, a family whose members are distributed throughout central and eastern Asia, Europe and North America. The Sugar Maple is found from southern Canada all the way down to Arkansas, Tennessee and the southern Appalachian Mountains, preferring well-drained sites with plenty of sunshine. Its botanical name is Acer saccharum … meaning the member of the Acer family which has a similar quality to sugar cane … and there, incidentally, is the origin of the name ‘saccharin’ for an artificial sweetener. The quality that it shares with sugar cane is, of course, its sweet tasting sap, which flows up through the tree in abundance in the Spring, having been produced to protect the tree’s roots from harsh winter frosts, for sugary sap resists freezing better than water alone. The people of the first nations, as the tribes we once called ‘Red Indians’ should now be styled, taught the early European settlers about this sap and showed them how to tap the trunk of the tree and to gather the sweet sap. A mature tree will yield about twelve gallons … yes, twelve gallons … of sap which is roughly 3% sugar, a weak solution which needs to be made more concentrated if it is not to go off, as weak sugar solutions do. Ideally, the sugar solution wants a density of something of the order of 66% to give a long-life syrup; so the sap needs to be gently boiled to reduce it until it is more than thirty times more concentrated. This means that the twelve gallons of sap from a typical tree end us as about three pints of syrup; so Canada needs a lot of Sugar Maples to produce its annual output of six million gallons of maple syrup … between three-quarters and four-fifths of world production. And the Daily Mail reported recently that maple syrup has been called a ‘one-stop shop’ for beneficial compounds, recent tests having revealed that maple syrup may help manage Type 2 diabetes as well as acting as an anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory agent.

Add the fact that the wood of Sugar Maple has been … and still is … valued for making into kitchen implements like rolling pins, spoons and cutting boards; that carpenters and craftsmen value it as an excellent medium for carving ornaments, with a close grain and fine appearance; that builders like its hard-wearing and decorative qualities for floorboards and skirting boards; and that the living tree draws water from lower soil layers and transfers it into upper soil layers where it benefits the tree itself and other plants growing around it; and you may wonder that the Sugar Maple is in decline in many areas. But when forests are felled, more opportunistic species of trees are taking its place unless a deliberate policy of Sugar Maple replacement planting is undertaken; acid rain is contributing to its decline; and, although this is not commercially significant, its wonderful, vivid red fall leaves are becoming less common in Canadian and American cities and towns as the trees’ susceptibility to pollution make them vulnerable to the increasing use of salt to improve winter road conditions. These magnificent trees, which can grow to a height of more than 40 metres … say, 125 feet … and live for about 200 years are, like so many plant species, vulnerable to mankind’s depredations; so let’s savour maple syrup while we still can!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society