Maple Sugar Festival

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Editorial Review

Syrup is straight from the tree at Brookside Nature Center
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

Long before Splenda, saccharin and high fructose corn syrup, there was another kind of sweetener, something simple and natural, if a little time intensive to make: maple syrup.

"In the days before the pioneers got here, this was the way Native Americans sweetened their food," says Jenny Aley, the park naturalist at Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton.

Red maples are native and common to the D.C. area, and many grow in Wheaton Regional Park. Sugar maples are less common but also grow in the park. Both trees produce sap for syrup. That's why for about 40 years, Brookside Nature Center has been reenacting the art of making maple syrup at the annual Maple Sugar Festival. Last year about 1,500 people visited the center for the day-long event, wandering among the trees to different stations and learning how maple syrup is made. Most people stay for about two hours.

"Everybody seems to be really enthralled with what we do," says Rick Allison, who has been volunteering at the festival for about 15 years with his wife, Nancy. From toddlers to senior citizens, he says, there's not just one target audience. It's a family affair.

The festival, which is Feb. 26, covers about four acres in the woods but is easy to navigate and well marked. Start at the ongoing five-minute orientation in the nature center auditorium, where you will begin your maple syrup education with a brief rundown on how syrup is made, then walk outside to see some tapped maple trees. This year, naturalists at the park will drill two-inch holes into six maple trees. This is called tapping. The holes are filled with spouts, and buckets to catch the dripping sap hang from the spouts.

At another station, sap will be boiled over a campfire, and a volunteer will talk about why the sap must boil for at least eight hours so all the water evaporates. You'll learn that it takes 60 gallons of sap from a red maple to make one gallon of syrup, and 40 gallons of sap from a sugar maple to make one gallon of syrup.

People will also be able to try a little syrup made at last year's festival. You can put it on a silver dollar pancake that is provided or lick it off a popsicle stick. New this year: syrup on shaved ice.

The day also includes crafts in the auditorium, and Aley says that kids and adults alike seem to have fun making maple tree headbands and wearing them throughout the day. This year, a flutist will play at the festival, adding musical flavor to the scene.

The goal of the day, says Julie Super, Montgomery County Parks spokesperson, is to combine cultural history with natural history.

It's also, of course, about having some sweet and all-natural fun.