When deciduous trees shed their leaves in the fall, they begin storing energy in their root system in the form of starch. These energy reserves enable trees to leaf out again the following spring when these stored starches are converted into sugar and transported upwards in the sapwood of the tree. In some trees, like sugar maple, the tree sap has a high sugar content and it can be collected to produce maple syrup.
The production of maple syrup can be traced back to indigenous tribes throughout the northeast. The Algonquians, in particular, had fairly sophisticated means for collecting and processing maple syrup. Indian tribes passed along this knowledge to the European settlers who were soon tapping maple trees for the sweet-tasting elixir.
In fact, in the early days of colonization, most sugar came from tapping trees because cane sugar was produced in the West Indies and hard to come by in the New World. In the far north, where maple trees are scarce, birch trees were tapped. Collecting syrup from these trees remains popular today in Alaska and Russia. Over the years, additional tree varieties have been tapped for syrup, and nowadays there is a niche market for many different types of syrup. Trees such as black walnut, butternut, sweet birch, sycamore, red maple, hickory, black maple and boxelder trees are being tapped for syrup, providing a wide array of flavors for all of us pancake lovers.
The syrup from black walnut and butternut is described as being nuttier in taste than conventional maple syrup. Birch syrup has more minerals in it than the other syrups and is less sweet. Sycamore syrup is almost yellow and is said to have a taste similar to honey. The tapping of sycamore for syrup is a fairly recent phenomenon, and some articles report that it takes nearly 50 gallons of sap to produce 1 quart of syrup. Boxelder syrup is described as being less sweet than traditional sugar maple syrup, tasting more like honey with hints of apple or caramel.
Researchers at Cornell University are conducting a study of nontraditional syrups coming from black walnut, butternut and birch trees to determine sugar content, optimal times to tap trees and yields. The study is intended to provide information that commercial syrup producers can use to determine if utilizing alternative species can be cost effective. Sugar maple remains the number one source of syrup by a large margin, and its sap has the most sugar content, although butternut is a close second.
The Province of Quebec is the largest producer of maple syrup, yielding nearly 75 percent of the global supply. The State of Vermont produces the most maple syrup in America, followed by Maine, Wisconsin and Ohio.
Many people are tapping trees on their property for syrup. When doing this, it is important to realize that drilling holes in trees results in some damage to the tree. It is probably not a good idea to tap trees that have more value as a part of your landscape. Also, in the case of butternuts, this damage may introduce butternut canker disease, which can result in tree mortality.