By Darrin Kimbler, Extension Educator
The first and most important activity when deciding to make maple syrup is correctly identifying maple trees in your sugar bush. It very disappointing after slogging through the cold to tap trees only to find out later that they were the wrong trees. Properly identifying maples during tapping season is more challenging because you do not have leaves on the trees to help with identification. This video shows the distinguishing characteristics of the three main maple species in Wisconsin used in making maple syrup. It also helps you to identify two other tree species that could confuse you in the woods at tapping time.
Maple identification begins with looking at branching patterns. Maples have an opposite branching pattern. That means that there are two branches or leaves attached to the stem opposite of each other. You should look at several branches to make sure that damage has not broken one off. Other trees have an opposite pattern so you should next look at additional identifying characters. If it is the growing season, you can use leaves to help confirm identity of maples. The leaves of the three main maple species used for making syrup are all simple and lobed. Simple leaves have only one blade per leaf. Other oppositely branched trees have compound leaves, which have multiple blades per leaf. Since maples do not have leaves on during the tapping season, learning bark patterns will make for more accurate and faster identification. Using bark as an identifier is as much an art as a science. The video below walks you through what to look for in bark patterns of maples.
As with most things, accurate identification of maples for making maple syrup requires lots of practice. For beginners to maple identification practicing during the growing season gives you the most options for proper identification. Spend time watching this video and get out and practice before the tapping season so that you are ready for the big day. Remember that even experts make mistakes on tree identification.
Photo credit top of page: Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org Creative Commons License licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.