University Park, Pa. -- As winter loses its grip on Pennsylvania, warmer days followed by cold nights signal the beginning of maple syrup season.
When spring conditions are right, sap in sugar maple trees begins to flow, and sugars made with last summer's sun move from their storage sites into the tree's trunk, according to Bob Hansen, Penn State Cooperative Extension forest resources educator based in Tioga County. Mid-February to early March normally heralds the arrival of the "right" conditions, and the season runs until early April most years.
"Maple sugar products are truly North American -- native Americans were the first people to make maple sugar," he said. "We speculate they used hot stones and bark vessels to 'boil' sap to concentrate the sugars. Early Europeans likely appreciated this source of sugar, and, with the advantage of iron pots, they soon developed this seasonal industry and converted sap into sugar cakes or blocks, which were easier to store."
Before tropical sugar sources were easily accessible, maple sugar was the premier sweetener. As imported sugar became increasingly available, the maple industry switched to syrup production. Today, the maple industry produces a wide-range of quality products, Hansen noted. However, syrup is the most common, best known and considered by many the ultimate natural product.
"Many woodlot owners today look forward to the maple season as an important part of their family heritage," Hansen said. "For some, it is a major cash crop. Among the state's diverse farm products, it is one of the few to be produced, processed and often sold entirely on the farm."
Quebec province leads North America in maple-syrup production, and the state of Vermont has successfully built an association with maple products. However, Pennsylvania is a major producer -- ranked seventh in the United States in 2009. Other leading maple states include Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia, Indiana, Iowa and Virginia.
"Sugar maple is the species of choice for tapping to make maple sugar," Hansen said. "Other maples such as black and red also yield sweet sap, but on average not as sweet as that flowing from sugar maple."