Mahqan (pronounced MAH-kwahn) is an indigenous word for maple syrup. It is made by collecting the sap of maple trees as it flows out of a small wound in the late winter and reducing it down to a thick, syrupy liquid. Traditionally, it was collected in paper birch bark containers and boiled down to make maple syrup (for immediate consumption) and maple sugar (stored for later consumption) by using heat to evaporate off the water. Now that we have airtight containers, syrup is the usual form that can be found in supermarkets. Maple syrup is a wild food, collected from forest-grown trees.
Though many people are familiar with maple syrup, many have not had the opportunity to enjoy the sap. Maple sap is a gift from the landscape, a gift given for surviving the northern winters. It is a long-awaited treat and something we often drink straight from the tree in its raw state. It is cold, clear, and has a slightly sweet taste. Consider it a “living water” that can cherished in the late winter. Our method of gathering involves metal buckets hung on steel spiles (a spile is the tap that is placed in the tree). I occasionally use a few bark buckets as well to practice and learn first-hand about indigenous methods. We travel through the groves of sugar maple and red maple, the two species we tap, collecting the sap in pails that we carry back to the home for drinking and boiling (to make syrup). Gathering in this fashion (rather than using extensive arrays of plastic tubes) provides movement and exercise.
Maple syrup, unlike many processed sweeteners, contains nutritive elements. These include vitamin B2 (also called riboflavin), the minerals manganese, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, and at least eight antioxidants. Many people are “sweetener-phobic”. They read of the damage caused by refined cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and similar products, assuming that all sweeteners have similar health effects. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Indigenous people around the world seek out sweet treats because they are calorie- and nutrient-dense (after all, the sweet taste receptors on our tongues are not there as a warning). There exist reports in anthropological works describing native people of the Great Lakes region consuming maple syrup as a primary source of nourishment during the sap season--without suffering from dental caries, diabetes, etc. Of course, this comes from protective elements in other parts of their diet and the fact maple syrup retains its nutrition (i.e., it has not been processed out). For example, maple syrup is rich in manganese, which contributes to a healthy immune system, assists with blood sugar regulation, and is an essential cofactor in the production of superoxide dismutase, an endogenous antioxidant. Zinc, also found in maple syrup, is necessary for healthy reproductive organs, also assists with blood sugar regulation, promotes mental development, and potentiates vitamin B9 (folate) absorption, critically important for a healthy baby. Note that this sweetener has two important minerals that assist with carbohydrate metabolism and increase the body’s tolerance of sugar. I would argue that maple syrup (much like honey) can be a small part of diverse diet that promotes health.
As stewards of the forest, we should be striving to take sustainably from them (whatever the product may be). The sap provides nourishment and energy that powers the new growth of leaves and flowers for the maple. If we take too much sap (by placing too many taps in a tree), we stress the individual tree and leave it in a place it may not be able to cope with pathogens, pollution, and climate. Therefore, guidelines have been established for tapping trees in a manner that does not take too much. (1) No tree should be tapped until it is at least 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter. (2) No tree should receive a second tap until it is 20 inches (50 cm) in diameter. (3) No tree should receive a third tap until it is 25 inches (64 cm) in diameter. (4) No tree should receive more than three taps, regardless of its size. Following these guidelines will help ensure your maples will remain healthy and provide you with sap for many years.
For those of you who do not have access to maple trees (of which any that are large enough can be tapped), you might try tapping other species. Many do not realize that members of the walnut family, including black walnut and white walnut (also known as butternut) can be tapped. They contain the same sugar as maples do (primarily sucrose), so their syrup is almost identical in flavor. Birches can also be tapped, but their sugars are primarily glucose and fructose, so the syrup tastes differently, a bit like molasses. However, you will need to gather and boil much more sap, as these species have lower sugar contents. But that should not stop you from tapping them for their sap. Like maple sap, the sap of these other trees contains trace vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making it an ideal spring tonic. If you have any of these species available to you, I encourage learning to tap them in a conscientious manner.