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Maple syrup season in Philadelphia: How and where to get it fresh from the tree

Learn how maple sap becomes syrup — and try it straight from the tree — at events at local farms and nature centers.

It's maple season in Philadelphia. Check out more than 10 maple tappings at area nature centers and farms.
It's maple season in Philadelphia. Check out more than 10 maple tappings at area nature centers and farms.Read moreiStock

Poured over pancakes or drizzled into every nook of a waffle, maple syrup is one of nature’s greatest gifts.

Real maple syrup is made from a single ingredient — sap, a mixture of water, minerals, and sugars that circulates in the vascular system of a maple tree. (Remember the xylem and the phloem from elementary-school biology class?)

When is maple syrup season in the Philadelphia area?

As the area’s sap-collecting season is short — it generally runs from late February through early April — Philadelphians can taste the sticky liquid straight from the tree at several maple tappings.

What makes this sap season? “When the temperature drops below freezing at night, and then rises back above freezing during the day,” says Margaret Rohde, conservation manager with the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association.

Rohde explains that when temperatures fall below 32 degrees, the pressure inside the tree becomes less than the pressure outside the tree. This causes sap to travel up from a tree’s roots through pores in its trunk. As temperatures warm back up, the pressure changes and the sap gets pushed back down. Maple tappers try to catch the sap mid-route.

Can I make my own maple syrup?

Yes. If your maple trees are at least 40 years old, you can get in on the action, too. The process is fairly simple, requiring little more than a drill, a 5/16-inch or 7/16-inch drill bit, and a tapping spout known as a spile.

“You can really drill anywhere on the trunk, you just need to make sure you go right around 3 inches deep — this is where the xylem and phloem layer is, essentially the tube where the sap runs up and down,” Rohde says. “The drill should be angled slightly upward so that gravity can help the sap flow out of the tree.”

The spile is gently hammered into the drill hole, and from there, the waiting process begins. Don’t expect a geyser of sap to gush from the tree. It’s more like a leaky-faucet slow drip.

“If you have consistent freeze-thaw conditions, you could get up to one gallon a day, but you need at least 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup,” Rohde says.

That’s because sap is almost entirely made up of water. Take a sip and that’s how it’ll taste, too. Even a sugar maple’s sap — which, at 2 percent sugar, has the highest sugar content of any maple tree — tastes watery.

To make syrup, the sap must be boiled down until the remaining liquid is 66 percent sugar. At home, that steamy simmering process can take all day and, unless you want to strip your wallpaper, should always be done outside, over a fire, grill, or wood stove. Color and thickness can be used to gauge when it’s ready, or dip in a hydrometer — the tool professionals use to test viscosity.

How much maple syrup does Pennsylvania produce?

Though it doesn’t make nearly as much as top annual producers Quebec and Vermont, Pennsylvania is one of the top 10 maple syrup producers worldwide. The state ranked sixth in the nation last year, yielding 142,000 gallons of the stuff, according to the USDA.

“It takes so much to make so little, so it becomes this novelty that really gives you respect for both the trees and the price of maple syrup,” Rohde says. “The best is watching kids realize syrup is just tree water — they often yell out a big ‘woah’ when they first see [the sap] trickling from the tree.”

To see a maple tapping firsthand, check out one of these events. Most feature harvesting demos as well as maple syrup and/or maple candy tastings.

Where can I go to maple-tapping events?

Look for events at these local spots in late February and early March:

  1. Wissahickon Environmental Center, 300 W. Northwestern Ave.,

  2. Tyler Arboretum, 515 Painter Rd., Media, ,

  3. Silver Lake Nature Center, 1306 Bath Rd.,

  4. Norristown Farm Park, 2500 Upper Farm Rd., Norristown,

  5. Churchville Nature Center, 501 Churchville Lane, Southampton,

  6. Fox Chase Farm, 8500 Pine Rd.,

  7. Green Lane Park, 2144 Snyder Rd., Green Lane,

  8. Washington Crossing State Park, 355 Washington Crossing Pennington Rd., Titusville, N.J.,

  9. Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, 31 Titus Mill Rd., Pennington, N.J., $22 for those over 13 years, $15 for children ages 3-13,

  10. Peace Valley Nature Center, 170 N. Chapman Rd., Doylestown,

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Expert sources:
  1. Margaret Rohde, conservation manager with the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association.