Sticky and Sweet
Syrup, the Natural Treat
By Cheril Lee • Photography by Alison Bickel
When you think of the state of Iowa, what comes to mind? Wind farming? Corn? Hawkeyes? All true. But, how about syrup? Yes, syrup, the sticky brown stuff that goes so well on pancakes?
People generally don’t think of Iowa as being a maple syrup producer because we definitely don’t have the concentration of maple trees other states do. But if you have even one maple tree, you can tap that tree and get sap from it to make syrup,” said Jon Fenner, park ranger with the Pottawattamie County Conservation Board.
In March every year, the Conservation Board holds a Maple Tree Tap event for the public, where attendees learn a little about the history of tapping as well as what kind of tree to look for and how and where to tap it.
Jon explained that the process is fairly simple. “Basically you’re drilling a hole approximately two inches into the tree and putting something in that hole to direct the sap into a bucket or container of some sort. We use a spile (a little funnel with a spoon on the end of it) in the hole, and that directs the sap into the bucket.”
The weather controls the sap flow. Conditions are ideal when the daytime temperature is above freezing but the nighttime temperature is below freezing. According to Jon, the temperature turns the sap flow on and then shuts it off. He said sunny 40-degree days and 25-degree evenings are perfect for good sap flow. “If all of a sudden the temperature was 50 degrees during the day and 40 at night, and that continued for a week or two, our season would be really short,” Jon said. In the 16 years Jon has been collecting sap from the trees at Botna Bend and Hancock Parks, he’s had seasons that have lasted a week and seasons that have lasted five. He said he usually makes around 11 to 15 gallons of syrup. In his worst year, he made about one gallon of syrup and in his best year, he made 19 gallons.
The taps are done at the two parks because they each have a good-size concentration of large silver maple trees. Once the season is in full swing, Jon said a total of 40 to 50 taps will be put in the various maple trees at the parks, with an average of two taps per tree. “We collect the sap in 5-gallon buckets. We use the bigger buckets so we only have to collect once a day. Some of these larger trees will easily fill the bucket if the weather is just right. Five gallons sounds like a lot, but it takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, so the return on your investment is pretty small,” said Jon.
When sap comes out of the tree, it’s primarily water and a little bit of sugar. Once collected, Jon takes the sap and boils it to get rid of the majority, but not all, of the water in it. He explained that they use a wood-fired evaporator to boil the sap in a stainless-steel pan on the top that holds about 30 to 40 gallons. “We will boil probably around 200 gallons of sap through that boiling process before we take it out of the pan and finish it in a smaller pan. The finishing pan has a propane gas burner under it,” he said. Turns out making syrup is all about keeping the fire under the sap hot and controlling the temperature so you don’t burn the sap, a natural sugar, ultimately ruining any syrup you might make.
It’s the 21st year for the Maple Tree Tapping at Botna Bend and Hancock Parks, but what if you wanted to attempt tapping for the first time? Jon explained if you have a big maple tree in your yard, you could get syrup from it. The first thing to do is identify the tree. This seems obvious, but trying to figure out which of your trees with bare branches is a maple may be challenging. Jon advised locating your maple tree in the summer and remembering its location for when winter arrives.
The tree should not have a lot of bad spots or rotten branches on it. You can tap any living part of a tree, including a branch that’s close to the ground. According to Jon, you don’t want to tap anything smaller than 20 inches in diameter, the minimum size for one tap. “Then every additional 12-inch diameter more, you can put another tap in. But I wouldn’t recommend using more than three taps in any one tree. And that’s only if you have a huge tree, maybe three feet across,” said Jon.
He said park staff tries to stagger their tree taps up and down and to the side so the trees can heal the holes where the taps were located. If you tap right next to a hole from a previous tap, you could kill the tree because the nutrients the tree needs will not be able to pass from the roots to the branches unobstructed.
Jon said the syrup they make has a nice smoky flavor and they keep it through the summer. Then the parks host a pancake breakfast the first Saturday in August and invites the public to eat for free. “It’s an end-of-summer tradition and a good way to complete the circle. We invite the public to the tapping and then invite them back to sample the syrup we make,” said Jon.
Botna Bend’s annual pancake feed using the maple syrup produced from the silver maple trees will be held at Botna Bend Park located at 42926 Mahogany Road in Hancock, Iowa, on August 16 from 8:30–11am. Bottles of the local maple syrup will be available for purchase. Information on upcoming events is available at PottCoConservation.com.