Rockwoods Reservation’s Maple Sugar Festival unlocks the secret sweets of trees

ST. LOUIS -- Winter may not be everybody’s favorite time of year, but many might be surprised to learn that trees are actually pretty sweet on it.

For about six weeks, from mid-January to the end of February, Mother Nature cooks up her own sweet treat within sugar maple trees as the sap begins to flow, ready to be tapped for making sugar and syrup. The Maple Sugar Festival at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Rockwoods Reservation offers the chance to see this historical process first-hand.

The Maple Sugar Festival takes place Saturday, Feb. 4, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is open to the whole family. Visitors will discover how Native Americans and early settlers harvested this sugary delight—and see how the process demonstrates good conservation at work.

“The Rockwoods Maple Sugar Festival is an excellent opportunity for people and families to experience nature at its finest,” said MDC Interpretive Center Manager Kevin McCarthy. “They'll learn skills to collect, boil and create their own maple syrup or sugar.”

Visitors will find out how to identify and tap sugar maple trees. They can also take guided hikes to see sap collection in action and witness first-hand how settlers made the sap into sugar.

Tasting the sugar and syrup is one of the most popular attractions. Kids will also delight in trying sugar on snow, a unique treat created when maple sap meets the winter white stuff.

The art of maple sugaring was discovered by Native Americans, who would set up “sugar camps” near a stand of sugar maples each year to make sugar. Sugar maple sap has the highest sugar content – about 3 percent – and produces the most sugar per gallon of sap collected. Still, it takes 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to yield one gallon of syrup.

Native Americans taught the process to early colonists. Settlers eventually developed a system of drilling small holes in the trees and placing hollow taps to draw the sap into wooden buckets. Back at the “sugar shed”, the sap was boiled down in large copper pots over an open fire. It’s a slow process, requiring almost 40 hours of boiling to produce a gallon of syrup.

Depending on how long the sap is boiled, a variety of products can be made, from hard sugar to syrup. The most common product was maple sugar blocks, because the sugar could be shaved off and used all year – or even traded for other goods. By 1890, cane sugar became cheaper to import as a sweetener so maple sugar production shifted to syrup instead.

In Missouri, February is prime maple sugaring season because it produces the right weather conditions. According to McCarthy, “February has the perfect combination of below freezing temperatures at night and above freezing temperatures during the day that causes the sap to ‘flow’." The greater the night-to-day temperature difference, the more the sap flows. But come March, chemical changes in the sap end the sugar production season.

There’s no denying the taste of maple sugar is a delight, but it also represents sweet success when it comes to living in harmony with nature.

“Conservation means smart use,” said McCarthy. “Maple sugaring is a prime example of this smart use because trees are not harmed, they can be tapped year after year, and only a small amount of sap is taken.”

The Rockwoods Reservation Maple Sugar Festival offers a fun and educational outing for the entire family. McCarthy sees it as an opportunity for people “. . . to connect to the natural world around them and have fun at the same time.”

The Conservation Department’s Rockwoods Reservation is located at 2751 Glencoe Road, off Highway 109 in Wildwood. For additional information on the Maple Sugar Festival, call 636-458-2236.

To learn more about backyard maple sugaring, including step-by-step instructions, see MDC's maple sugaring webpage at http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/how/maple-sugaring.