Thursday, April 3, 2008

Maple Sugar

The blooms of the maples have caught my eye this spring. Their subtle crimson glow is one of the earliest signs of the end of winter and this year has been no exception. For honeybees, maples are among the first sources of nectar, and on the afternoons when the temperatures warmed to sixty degrees, you might have observed them making their rounds.

The blooms are easy to overlook unless, like a honeybee, you take time to visit them close-up. Then you will see their exuberant burst of spring life and color. After several weeks of blooms, the equally colorful seeds are forming now. And before long the winged seeds will take flight like little helicopters.

It is hard to say that I have a favorite tree. Oaks and hemlocks have a special place in my heart, going back even farther than my memory will reach. But the maples are a wonder in all seasons. Recently, I mentioned Margaret Morley and her 1913 book, The Carolina Mountains. It is an unusually well-indexed volume, so I checked to see what Morley had written about maples. She described how sap was collected from sugar maples – in North Carolina - to produce syrup:

Of course hickories, maples, elms, beeches, birches, and many other trees abound, although we lack the beautiful "American elm" that so adorns the old New England villages and lends romance to Northern valleys. And the spectral white birch is not with us. But the sugar-maple, — ' ' sugar-tree ' ' the native here calls it, — abundant in some regions, sweetens the corn-pone of the mountaineer as agreeably as in the cold North it embellishes the buckwheat cakes of a winter's morning. The sugar-trees might yield a good profit to thrifty harvesters, but the time-honored method of chopping a hole in the trunk and sticking in a bit of bark to conduct the sap into a wooden trough on the ground, although time-saving, does not produce results that command fancy prices, particularly as the rest of the process is equally free and easy.

The troughs stand on the ground through the remainder of the year collecting water, twigs, leaves, and anything else that may chance to fall into them. In the winter all this freezes into a solid cake which the practical mountaineer has discovered can be turned out whole, thus giving less trouble than any other method of cleaning the troughs. Maple-sugar as made in the mountains may be black in color and diversified with many strong flavors, but the people have a pretty way of running it into empty eggshells, where it hardens, and can then be handed about and carried in the pocket with more regard to cleanliness than is apparent in any other part of its history.

After reading Morley’s account, I went back through my notes, knowing that maple sugaring was an ancient practice in the Southeast. James Adair, a trader among the Cherokees during the 1700s, wrote:

...several of the Indians produce sugar out of the sweet maple-tree, by making an incision, draining the juice, and boiling it to proper Consistence.

Several years after Adair, Benjamin Hawkins served as an Indian agent and witnessed maple sugaring:

On this creek [Limestone Creek in northern Georgia], the sugar is made by the Indian women, they use small wooden troughs, and earthen pans to ketch the sap, and large earthen pots for boilers.

Finally, this passage from Appalachian Arcadia:

Elijah and Christina Messer came to Little Cataloochee in the 1870s. Elijah's new neighbors admired his talent with a fiddle and watched with curiosity as he tapped maple trees for syrup. Maple sugaring was undertaken in various sections of the mountains including Cataloochee in Haywood County. But this enterprise was better suited to the northwestern mountains, from Watauga to Ashe Counties, a region later promoted by the state for its maple sugar potential.

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