From Sap to Syrup
Students recognize how geography and climate allow for the growth of maple trees and the process of making syrup, identify the characteristics of maple trees that produce the best sap for making maple syrup, and name the steps in the process of creating syrup from sap. Grades K-2
- Maple syrup (locally grown, if possible), 1 small cup per student
- Seesaw (optional)
- iPad or tablet, 1 per group
- K-W-L Charts Instructions
Activity 1: Sugar Snow
- Sugar Snow by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Tub of sandy or clayey soil*
- Tub of dark, wet soil (add water to local dark soil or potting soil)
- Tub of rocky soil (gather local rocky soil or add small rocks to soil)
- Sticky notes
- K-W-L chart from Interest Approach — Engagement
*Sand and clay samples are included in the Soil Samples (Soil Texture) Kit, which is available for purchase from agclassroomstore.com.
Activity 2: Sugar Maples
- USDA Natural Resources Conservation maps for sugar maple, black maple, red maple, silver maple, and box elder trees
- Leaves from sugar maple, black maple, red maple, silver maple, and box elder trees or Maple Tree Leaves drawings, 1 leaf from each tree for every 2-3 students
- Maple Tree Labels
- Sugar Maple Cross Section photo
- 12"X18" brown construction paper, 1 piece per student
- Rulers, 1 per student
- Scissors, 1 per student
- K-W-L chart from Interest Approach — Engagement
Activity 3: Sap to Syrup
climate: the prevailing weather conditions in a specific area over a long period of time
evaporate: turn from liquid to gas
legend: a very old, unverifiable story passed down from one generation to the next
maple syrup: a thick, sweet liquid made by dissolving the sugar found in the sap of a maple tree by boiling
maple tree: a type of tree with lobed leaves and colorful autumn leaves used for timber or syrup
natural resources: materials or substances such as minerals, forests, water, and fertile land that occur in nature and can be used for economic gain
sap: the fluid made up mostly of water with dissolved sugars that circulate inside a plant or tree
sugar house: a building with equipment to turn maple sap into syrup
sugaring season: when maple syrup is made
tap: the hole put in a tree to extract sap
Did You Know?
- It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.1
- In 2017, 4.27 million gallons of maple syrup were produced in the United States. Vermont leads the nation in maple syrup production.2
- Native Americans living in the Northeast region of North America are credited with making the first maple syrup.3
- During the 2001 baseball season, Barry Bonds switched from the traditional ash wood baseball bat to one made of maple and hit 73 home runs—a new record!4
Background Agricultural Connections
Maple trees are a natural resource that are found almost anywhere but are most prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere. They are hardy but prefer, and are found, mostly in cool, wet climates. They like well-drained soil that is sandy or clayey with loose texture. There are at least one hundred species of maple trees. Fourteen species are found in the United States, with the majority of them found in the northeast and midwest sections of our country. Maple syrup can be made from any species of maple tree. Most maple syrup is made from the sugar maple due to its high sugar content. Generally, the ratio of sap to syrup for the sugar maple is 40 to 1 (40 gallons of sap yields one gallon of syrup).5
Sugar maple trees grow abundantly in the northeastern United States and is the state tree for New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Sugar maples grow to a height of 60-75 feet and a spread of 40-50 feet at maturity. They can grow 12-24 inches a year and can live for over 400 years. The sugar maple leaf can be identified by its five distinct coarsely toothed lobes connected by shallow U-shaped notches. Leaves measure 3-5 inches at maturity, are medium to dark green, and turn yellow, burnt orange, and red in the fall.4
A maple tree should be at least 10-12 inches in diameter before it is tapped for sap. A tree this size would be about 30-40 years old. Tapping a tree does not damage or endanger its health, although it does create a wound. This wound can recover by growing over its tap hole within the next year. Some producers will alternate tapping trees each year. A tree with a 21-27 inch diameter can support two taps, and those with a greater than 27 inch diameter can support three taps. Sugarmakers begin tapping trees in February. A taphole is drilled and a spout is placed in the hole and tapped into place. Most commercial operations attach tubing to the spout, but smaller or historical farms will place a bucket under the spout.
Weather is an important factor for a successful maple syrup harvest. The best weather for production is when the temperature reaches 40 degrees during the day and 20 degrees during the night. This thawing and freezing cycle creates pressure changes inside the tree that causes sap flow. Sugar is stored below ground in the root system over the winter, and pressure changes transfer the sap above the ground. If it is too cold, the sap will take longer to run, and if it is very cold, the sap might not run at all. The average sugaring season (when sap is collected and maple syrup is made) is between 4-6 weeks, but can be as short as two weeks or as long as two months. The best sap is tapped in the early part of the sugaring season.
As the sap flows from a taphole, it is either drawn through tubing to storage tanks in the sugar house using a vacuum or it is collected in buckets and gathered by hand. From the storage tanks, the sap is often put through a reverse osmosis machine which takes some of the water from the sap. The sap is then put into an evaporator where it is boiled. As the water in the sap evaporates, the sap thickens and the sugar caramelizes. When the temperature reaches 219°F, the syrup is ready to be drawn off, filtered, adjusted for density, and graded for flavor and color.6
The first maple syrup production is often credited to the indigenous tribes living in the northeast region of the United States. It is believed that the early European explorers learned the technique for making syrup from the Native Americans. There are many legends about the first discovery of maple syrup. The Legend of Chief Woksis is an Iroquois legend about how maple sap was accidentally boiled down to discover maple syrup.
There are many ways to enjoy maple syrup. It is most often poured over the top of pancakes, waffles, French toast, or oatmeal and is also used in baking. When shopping in the grocery store, be sure to recognize the difference between pure maple syrup (made from the sap of a maple tree) and table syrup (made from artificial flavors).
- Provide the students with a sample of maple syrup (without telling them what the sample is) to observe. Encourage them to taste it and consider how they would describe it, name it, and use it. Ask the students to think about how it was made.
- Organize the students into pairs. Invite the students to work together to create a digital recording or video of their observations and inquiry ideas using Seesaw or an iPad or tablet. Their recording should:
- Show a picture of their sample.
- Record their voice explaining their observations and ideas about maple syrup, its uses, and its origin. They will share their video with another group to compare observations and ideas, and brainstorm more details about their sample.
- Identify the sample as maple syrup. Using the K-W-L Charts instructions, create a class K-W-L chart about maple syrup.
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Sugar Snow
- Read the book Sugar Snow by Laura Ingalls Wilder to the class.
- Ask the following questions to help students recall Pa’s information about how the maple syrup was made.
- In what season did the story take place? (Winter turning into spring.)
- What was the weather like the morning Pa left for Grandpa's house? (snowy)
- Why did Pa call it a sugar snow? (Snow at the beginning of spring helps the maple trees make more sap that can be made into syrup.)
- How is sap made into syrup? (Grandpa boiled the sap in a big iron kettle.)
- Where did the sap come from? (From small holes that Grandpa drilled into the maple trees.)
- Show the students the soil samples—sandy or clayey soil; dark, wet soil; and rocky soil. Have the students feel and observe the different soil samples and predict which soil they think would be best for growing maple trees by placing a sticky note with their initials on the tub they choose. Clarify that maple trees grow best in sandy or clayey soil that is well-drained and loose. Compare the sandy or clayey soil to the soil in your area. Is it similar or different?
- Using the information from the Background Agricultural Connections, discuss what kind of climate and temperatures are best for collecting sap for maple syrup. Ask the students if the climate where they live is similar or different from the climate needed for harvesting sap from maple trees.
- Ask the students, "Would our climate and soil be good for making maple syrup? Why or why not?"
- Review what was learned about maple syrup and have students share their connections and suggest any new ideas they want added to the K-W-L chart from the Interest Approach — Engagement.
Activity 2: Sugar Maples
- Using the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service maps, identify where sugar maple, black maple, red maple, silver maple, and box elder trees grow in the United States. Determine which maple trees grow in your state.
- Organize the class into groups of 2-3 students. Provide each group with leaves from sugar maple, black maple, red maple, silver maple, and box elder trees and the Maple Tree Labels. Use either real leaves that you have collected or the Maple Tree Leaves drawings. Ask the groups to match each leaf with the type of maple tree and review their matches as a class.
- Ask the students which maple tree they think is most often used for harvesting sap to make maple syrup. Clarify that although maple syrup can be made from the sap of any maple tree species, most maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maples due to its high sugar content.
- Project the Sugar Maple Cross Section photo onto a large screen. Ask the students if they know how to tell how old a tree is. Show the tree rings on the photo and explain that one way to tell the age of a tree is to count the tree rings. Each ring shows a years worth of growth. A sugar maple needs to be between 10-20 inches in diameter before it is ready to be tapped. Trees of that size are usually about 30-40 years old.
- Provide each student with a piece of 12"X18" brown construction paper, a ruler, and a pair of scissors. Have each student create a tree cross section (also known as a cookie) with a 10-12 inch diameter by measuring and marking a horizontal line 12 inches long in the middle of the paper. Find the center mark on their line (6 inches) and measure and mark a vertical 12” line through that mark (forming a +). Connect the outside points of each line by drawing a curved line between them to make a ring. Cut this out. This "tree cookie" shows the diameter of a sugar maple tree that is ready to be tapped.
- Draw 30-40 tree rings on the tree cookie to represent the age of a tree that is ready to be tapped.
- Review what was learned about sugar maple trees, and have students share their connections and suggest any new ideas they want added to the K-W-L chart from the Interest Approach — Engagement.
Activity 3: Sap to Syrup
- Organize the class into groups of 4-5 students. Provide each group with a set of Sap to Syrup Timeline Cards. Have the groups work together to put the cards in the order they think is correct for making syrup from the sap of a sugar maple tree.
- Show the video How to Make Maple Syrup.
- After viewing the video, allow time for groups to make any necessary adjustments to their timeline. As a class, review the steps and check that the group timeline cards are in the following order:
- Tap a sugar maple tree
- Collect the sap in buckets or in tubes
- Store the sap in a storage tank in the sugar house
- Boil the sap to let the water evaporate and create syrup
- Filter the syrup
- Bottle the maple syrup
- Review what was learned about making maple syrup, and have students share their connections and suggest any new ideas they want added to the K-W-L chart from the Interest Approach — Engagement.
Contact a local nature center, naturalist, or maple syrup producer to follow-up with a presentation showing a sap sample, tools used, and share more details about the production and use of maple syrup. Schedule a visit to a site to experience tapping trees firsthand.
A legend is a very old, unverifiable story passed down from one generation to the next. Share The Legend of Chief Woksis, an Iroquois legend about the discovery of maple syrup, with the class. Ask the students if they think the story could have actually taken place.
Conduct a taste test to compare pure maple syrup to other types of syrup available for purchase at local grocery stores. Look at the ingredients listed on the labels to compare and contrast.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees.
- The sap of maple trees is harvested in late winter/early spring.
- To make maple syrup, the sap is boiled to let the water evaporate.
Recommended Companion Resources
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