This is Katrina Moyna with the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette, Iowa, bringing you your weekly nature programming! Last week we talked about phenology, or the flow of sun energy through the ecosystem. Well, maple syrup falls under that category as well. Maple sap runs best when daytime temperatures are in the high 30s to mid-40s and overnight temperatures are below freezing. Sometimes sap flows as early as January or as late as May, but sap usually runs from about mid-March to mid-April. It usually takes 30-40 gallons of sugar maple sap to produce one gallon of pure maple syrup. Sugar maples have the greatest amount of sugar in their sap, but you can also tap red and silver maples, box elders, and birch trees. An average maple will produce about 20 gallons of sap in the spring, which only amounts to 2 quarts of syrup.
The Chippewa, Menominee, and Winnebago tribes of the Great Lakes region awaited this time of year with great pleasure. The Chippewa used the sap as a tasty sweet drink, syrup, and candy. The Menominee made maple sugar and used the syrup as a seasoning much like we use salt. One of the best times of the year for most tribes was during "sugaring" time as people came together with family and friends at the maple grove following a long winter. Syrup was not only a tasty treat, it was also a valuable trade item to the Native Americans. “Meskwaki maple syrup was a sort of currency and it determined the value of all traded goods across the entire Midwest for hundreds of years,” according to the Meskwaki’s Historical Preservation Director.
Many maple syrup vendors in NE Iowa, check with your local extension office, farmers market, or community grocery store. Maple syrup is a great sugar replacement and can be used in baking and as toppings, as it is full of vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients.
So do other animals harvest tree sap? Yes, they do! The red squirrel is famous for harvesting maple sap. When its stores of pinecones and nuts gathered during the summer and fall run low, the squirrel scores the bark of sugar maple trees with its sharp teeth, allowing the sap to drain. Once most of the sap's water has evaporated in the winter sunlight and left a sugary residue on the bark, the squirrel returns to lick it. The sugar provides an energy boost in an otherwise lean time of year. The discovery of the survival strategy dates back to an Iroquois Indian myth when a youth noticed a squirrel licking the sap and decided to try some, too. Like the red squirrel, other animals depend on stored food for their winter survival. Beavers pack a winter larder by storing branches in chilly, underwater food caches. Birds such as chickadees and nutcrackers have ample caches of seeds. Bears don't have to store food caches as they turn on the hibernation hormone and their appetite is suppressed, while some fish actually have antifreeze components in their bloodstream to keep them from freezing and survive the winter.
The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre will host MovieMania this Saturday at 6:00 pm by showing the popular animated film, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.” Brian Gibbs with Osborne Nature Center will be talking about his work in Glacier National Park at 5:00 pm that day, and Bald Eagle Days is in Guttenberg on Saturday, February 14 and in Prairie du Chien on Saturday, February 28. We will also host Astronomy Night on Friday, February 27th from 6:00pm – 8:00pm. We will have the newest and most up-to-date, indoor digital planetarium of its kind, a costume contest for kids, outdoor telescopes, guest speakers at multiple interpretive stations, cookies, and coloring.
Enjoy the Outdoors! It’s always free!
Photo: Katrina Moyna photographs a wild winter wetland scene at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre. In the background you can see Northeast Iowa's noted bluffs, which contain many birch and maple stands. Northeast Iowa leads the state in maple syrup production.