Q+A: Tapping the sweet secrets of Oregon’s native maple trees

Eliza Nelson, founder and director of the Oregon Maple Project, sheds light on the practice of bigleaf maple “sugaring.”

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The leaves of a bigleaf maple tree give its identity away; in winter, look for vertically striped bark patterns, moss and licorice ferns growing on bark, and branches that grow in opposite formations.

Photo by Cambrie Juarez, PDXtoday

Maple trees of the Pacific Northwest may be leafless in the winter, but beneath their mossy bark flows a substance that humans have harvested for generations: sap.

Hidden within the sap in such low quantities as to be all but impossible to detect by taste is sugar. New England’s prized sugar maples contain higher sugar content (about 2%) than their PNW cousins, the bigleaf maples (about 1%), but all maples — and many other types of trees — store sugar in their sap to act as a sort of antifreeze, protecting cells and tissues from extreme cold. Turning sap into maple syrup is a process known as “sugaring,” and involves tapping a tree, collecting its sap, and boiling off the water until sweet, dark syrup remains.

The Oregon Maple Project is focused on specifically sugaring bigleaf maple trees. Eliza Nelson, the organization’s founder and director, developed a passion for sugaring while growing up in Vermont. She made her first bigleaf syrup in 2018 after moving to the PNW and launched the Oregon Maple Project two years later, bringing sugaring opportunities and education to the Portland area.

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Bigleaf maple syrup (left and right) is darker in color and more molasses-like in taste compared to sugar maple syrup.

Photo by Cambrie Juarez, PDXtoday

Q: How common is sugaring here in the PNW? Can people find local syrup at, say, farmers markets or grocery stores?

A: While we know that Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest have always valued the bigleaf maple for many uses, harvesting sap from the tree for syrup is a more recent activity. Many hobby tappers have been active over the past 50 years in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Over the past decade, the bigleaf maple sugaring movement has grown, due to: new publicity; use of efficient sugaring methods from the East; research at Oregon State, Washington State, and University of Washington; and the success of first commercial producers.

Neil [McLeod] of Neil’s Bigleaf Maple Syrup sells a beautiful product online, and many smaller producers are beginning to sell direct from their farms or at markets. Bigleaf maple syrup is now included as an accepted product in Oregon’s Farm Direct bill.

Q: Can anyone tap a maple tree in their backyard and collect sap to turn into syrup?

A: Yes! I love that maple sugaring is simultaneously a simple and thrilling process. All maples (and many other hardwoods like birch, beech, and walnut) provide sweet sap that can be boiled into syrup. All you need to get started is a drill, a spout or spile, a container for collection, a pot, a heat source, and a lot of patience over the winter to await the right conditions for sap flow.

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Melanie Douville, program coordinator at the Oregon Maple Project, taps a bigleaf maple at Hoyt Arboretum.

Photo by Cambrie Juarez, PDXtoday

Q: Does tapping a tree damage it in any way? Do you generally need access to a large number of trees?

A: Careful, cleaning tapping methods do not necessarily hurt a tree, but they do leave scar tissue in the xylem tubing above and below the taphole. Sap will no longer flow in that section of the tree, so new tap holes need to be drilled on a separate section of the tree’s trunk. To make a measurable amount of bigleaf maple syrup, it helps to tap 10-25 trees. The sap-to-syrup ratio for bigleaf is usually 100:1.

Q: Does a colder winter translate to better sugaring?

A: Yes, cold weather, followed by a thaw creates the best sap runs. The freeze-thaw cycle is what helps to pressurize the sap in the tree, forcing it out of the tap hole.

Q: Do you prefer the taste of syrup made from bigleaf maple sap or sugar maple sap?

A: I love all maple syrup and have a special place in my heart and my palate for Vermont sugar maple syrup. That said, I think bigleaf maple syrup is less sweet and more complex. It has a richer, more intriguing flavor — definitely a distinctive taste of the Pacific Northwest.

Q: What is your favorite way to consume maple syrup?

A: I have a teaspoon of sugar maple syrup every morning in my chai latte. My favorite way to consume bigleaf maple syrup is on French toast or in bourbon cocktails. I’ve been trying to use maple syrup as my main sweetener lately in baking. Maple syrup feels healthier to me; like others, I love to call it Vitamin M!

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Eliza Nelson stands beside the Oregon Maple Project’s evaporator. It takes about 40 gallons of bigleaf maple sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup.

Photo courtesy of Eliza Nelson

Q: What’s the best way for someone with no experience to get started?

A: Come to one of our weekend sugaring workshops! We lead them once a month throughout the 6-month sugaring season.

Q: What kind of time commitment/property size is required to join the Sugaring Collective?

A: Most members of our Sugaring Collective have access to at least 10 bigleaf maples for tapping. Some members own forested properties; others join with urban neighbors to combine sap from their trees together. We all keep in touch over the winter via email, and members can adjust their time commitment as they need. We hope that everyone attends and helps out at our end-of-season community boil, usually held in March.

To learn more about the Indigenous history and process of maple sugaring, Nelson recommends reading the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

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