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February 8, 2006
Posted online February 9, 2006

Rich, sweet maple sap is drip, drip, dripping

By Tim Crosby

tasting maple syrup
A boy visiting Touch of Nature Environmental Center tastes the sweet sap dripping from a newly installed tree tap Monday, Feb. 6, at Touch of Nature. The center, part of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is holding a month’s worth of classes for kids and adults on collecting maple sap and making syrup and candy.

Kate Hellgren, environmental educator at Touch of Nature Environmental Center, uses a hand drill to start a tap on a sugar maple tree as a class of young students looks on, Monday, Feb. 6, at Touch of Nature.

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Rich, sweet maple sap is drip, drip, dripping into pails at Touch of Nature Environmental Center, and educators at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale facility are hosting a month of events aimed at showing schoolchildren and families how the savory liquid makes the transition from tree tap to topping.

Environmental educators at Touch of Nature in recent weeks test-tapped several of the many sugar maples located in the dense woods surrounding the center south of Carbondale.

"The sap is definitely running," said Kate Hellgren, who is organizing the maple syrup programs this year. "The trees basically need cold nights and warm days to get started, and the weather has been right."

Scores of pre-kindergarten through sixth grade classes will visit the center during the coming weeks for a three-hour program that delves into the history, folklore and science behind making maple syrup. Hellgren and others also have organized a two-hour program for individuals and families exploring the process and finishing with tree tapping and tasting.

Those interested should register now by calling 618/453-1121. The program is set for 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at Touch of Nature, nine miles south of Carbondale off Giant City Road.

Southern Illinois lies on the southernmost border for the sugar maple and black maple tree range in the United States, Hellgren said. The programs will look at the origins of maple syrup and sugar through the eyes of American Indians and early settlers. It also will discuss the legends of its discovery and the many ways it was used by different cultures.

Participants will learn interesting facts about maple syrup. During the Civil War, for instance, maple products became a symbol of the Union North, which used sugar and syrup derived from native trees while the South relied on cane sugar grown on plantations.

"For a time, maple syrup and sugar became a political symbol," Hellgren said.

The program also discusses the natural history of maple syrup. Participants will learn how to identify the sugar and black maple and what causes the sap to run at certain times of the year. They also will learn how to transform the sap into syrup and even into sugar or candy.

Toward the end of the program, educators will tap trees by pounding a "spile" through the bark. A spile is a hollow metal tube that captures sap as it ascends from the tree roots to nourish budding leaves. Harvesters next hang a bucket on the end of the tube to catch the sap, which they later collect and boil down to its sugary essence.

Before they leave, participants will get the chance to taste the end result.

"It's a family oriented program," Hellgren said. "This is meant for everyone."

Touch of Nature offers a wide variety of educational and service programs at its 3,100-acre wooded compound on Little Grassy Lake. The facility has been an interdisciplinary unit of SIUC for more than 40 years.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Photos by Russell Bailey

© 2005 The Cairo Gate