Every March, 1,500 people flock to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum for MapleFest — it’s this weekend — to celebrate the beginning of spring. They come to watch tree-tapping demonstrations, to witness syrup being cooked from sap, to learn about the history of maple sugaring, and, most importantly, to consume pancakes topped with Arboretum maple syrup. The Arboretum’s resident expert, Richard DeVries, makes this all possible.
Hailing from the Netherlands, he started working at the Arboretum in 2000 via an international exchange work program. Serving as the natural resources manager, he maintains a wide variety of habitats throughout the year. Come spring, he turns his attention to the sugar maples.
He taps around 400 trees with the help of a handful of volunteers each season. He then waits patiently for Mother Nature’s work. Once the sap begins to flow, he collects it and heads to the sugar shack where he cooks it down to produce syrup. With 40 gallons of sap yielding just one gallon of syrup, it’s a big job. On top of that, climate change has made production more unpredictable.
Still, DeVries said he revels in this aspect of his job because it offers a unique ground-level view of the entrance of spring. In a recent conversation, he talked about the process and the payoff involved in sampling that first batch each season. Below are edited excerpts:
On learning to make syrup
I trained with the last person who was in charge of the maple syrup production at the Arboretum before they retired in 2009. I also joined the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers’ Association and went to various sugar bushes in the area to see how other people do it. There’s always room for improvement. Every year I change something about how we do things to make a better product.
On the growing local interest in maple sugaring
There’s a lot of local interest here. Many of the state and regional parks tap trees and have open houses. When you buy maple syrup from a small local sugar bush that taps its own trees, you know it will be high quality and won’t have fillers. It comes straight out of the tree, then they cook it down and bottle it without preservatives. You can even buy equipment at Fleet Farm now. I think people are interested in the self-sufficiency aspect of it, plus it’s a good way to spend time outdoors that time of year when it’s warming up again.
On unpredictable weather
Getting sap to flow is totally weather dependent — it has to freeze at night and warm up during the day. You can have a long season with lots of sap, but sometimes it can be as short as two weeks. Sometimes you think it’s going to be a good day and then you don’t get any sap and wonder what happened. Our worst season we got three gallons of syrup and the best we got 120 gallons, so there’s a big difference.
On the tree-tapping process
We have a lot of visitors — around 1,000 elementary schoolchildren each spring — and other groups who come to learn about the history of maple sugaring and go to the sugar house to see how the sap is cooked down. They also go into the woods and tap a tree. The groups tap around 60 to 90 trees where plastic bags collect the sap. The Arboretum has also added trees on tubing, and there are three different tubing systems: two that use gravity and one on a vacuum system. We tap 400 trees altogether.
On the tastes and smells
When we give visitors sap to taste, they are often surprised. The sap looks like water and only has 2 to 3 percent sugar. We let kids do a little taste test to compare real maple syrup to corn syrup. People always comment on how good the sugar house smells when we evaporate the sap. The steam from the process goes outside so you can smell it all around.
On working in the woods
When we start working at the beginning of the season it’s cold out, often below freezing. We want to be ready when the weather is right. As it warms up, the birds return to the woods and the wildflowers begin to sprout. When the sap starts flowing, you know spring is coming. Being out there makes you feel like you’re a part of spring.
On the end of each maple sugaring season
Everything is sticky, so we do a lot of work to clean up all the collection tanks and tubing. It takes a couple of weeks. It’s always a bit of a downer — like cleaning up after a party. But I still consider myself lucky that my job changes with the season and I get a lot of variety throughout the year.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.