Bigleaf Maple Sugaring
Acer macrophyllum or Oregon Maple is a noteworthy native of the Northwest. With leaves large enough to be donned as masks or floppy hats, the Bigleaf is the most mammoth of all maples. The tree can grow up to 100 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter, developing deeply grooved, brown bark that is sponged with moss and feathered with licorice fern. In early spring, this tree's elongated pink buds flake open into long, showy flower clusters that hang like miniature bunches of neon grapes. They are tasty and nutritious to eat, flavored a tad like broccoli. Fertilized, these flowers mature into large, fuzzy samaras that jostle together in pendant clumps, looking like tangled chimes. Young, soft, bright leaves flap themselves open and gradually toughen into a darker, leathery green. They are 5-lobed with strikingly deep notches separating the center section, and they yellow pleasingly in fall. Bigleaf stems, like all other parts of the tree, are characteristically oversized, often 8 inches in length, and when pierced they ooze a milky liquid.
Often found growing in damp lowlands near streams where they contribute in important ways to riparian ecosystems, Bigleaf Maples range along the West Coast from Northern California up into British Columbia. They are resilient trees, capable of sending out new shoots from their root systems when damaged or felled. Young Bigleaf trees have gray, stripy bark. As they mature, it is not uncommon for Bigleaf Maples to develop giant burls, prized by woodworkers for their unique grain patterns.
Of the 125 species of maples in the world, only three are native to the Pacific Northwest: the Bigleaf Maple, the Douglas Maple, and the Vine Maple. Thirteen maples are native to North America, and all of them produce sugary sap that can be boiled into maple syrup. The most commonly tapped maple in Eastern Canada and the United States is the sweetest of all, the Sugar Maple. Black, Red, and Silver Maples are also successfully tapped in the East. All maple sugaring was developed first by indigenous people, who taught the art to colonists and settlers along the East and West Coasts.
Given its size and hardiness, the Bigleaf Maple is the best sap producer in the West. Many hobbyists and backyard sugar makers boil Bigleaf sap into syrup, with a growing community of sapsuckers organizing on Vancouver Island. The Backlunds, authors of Bigleaf Sugaring: Tapping the Western Maple, have been instrumental in building that community, helping to launch the annual Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival, held each February at the BC Forest Discovery Center. Exciting new sugaring developments in Oregon and Washington include Neil McLeod's commercial operation, along with research and outreach at the University of Washington, Oregon State University, and Washington State University.
Bigleaf Maple sugaring, while similar to Eastern syrup production, differs in a few ways. Bigleaf sap (with 1-2% sugar) is not as sweet as Sugar Maple sap (2-5% sugar). It takes about 40 gallons of Sugar Maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. In Bigleaf Maple sugaring, around 80 gallons of sap are needed to produce a gallon of syrup. Bigleaf syrup, boiled longer and tasting stronger, tends to be rich and dark, with tinges of caramel, corn, and molasses flavors. The sugaring season for Bigleaf syrup is a long one, beginning as early as November and lasting until March. Given the mild climate of the Pacific Northwest, low-elevation trees like the Bigleaf Maple are not subjected to long months of freezing temperatures like their Eastern cousins. The classic conditions for sap flow--frosty nights followed by sunny, thawing days--can occur intermittently throughout a Northwestern winter rather than in a single spring blast at the end of an Eastern winter. Bigleaf sap flow is less predictable, but more ongoing. We are learning all the time while working with these admirable trees.