One sweet campus tradition: Making Michigan maple syrup

February 15, 2023

Dress for the weather — the forecast says 47 degrees and sunny — and come to UM-Dearborn on Saturday. You’re invited to take part in a favorite seasonal activity.

Photo of Arno Elementary School students learning about maple tree tapping at the EIC, 2018
EIC staff member Rick Simek leads a maple tree tapping lesson to younger EIC explorers. During maple syrup season, approximately 1,000 children on school field trips visit the center. Photo by Sarah Tuxbury

A squirrel ran across a maple tree’s large branch, stopped near the end and plopped down for a snack. Its nibble of choice? The maple tree’s leaf buds. Most people might not notice an animal grabbing a bite to eat in the tree canopy. But UM-Dearborn’s Environmental Study Area Program Manager Rick Simek has a sense about these things.

Sitting at an outdoor picnic table, Simek said he’s unsure of the impact this year’s warmer Michigan winter will have on the trees’ sap production. Simek then paused and then squinted to get a better look at movement in the trees. “Some animals have sweet tooths, just like we do. That squirrel is eating the maple buds. If the squirrel thinks those are pretty tasty, that’s a good sign,” Simek said. “It tells us that the sap is moving around in the tree and it’s time to tap.”

That’s an especially good thing for UM-Dearborn’s long-standing campus maple syrup collecting tradition. On Saturday, Feb. 18, community members are invited to help the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center staff tap 50 maples to begin the sap collection process. Volunteers can also help hang sap buckets — basically round tin structures with a bent lid — on the trees too. Interested in the all-ages event? Sign up.

“We enjoy sharing this beautiful part of our campus with the public to experience traditional seasonal activities that go back a long, long time in our part of the world,” Simek said. In addition to the tapping activity, Simek said people will learn how to identify non-leafed sugar and black maple trees and other distinguishing characteristics about maples. They’ll also hear about the maple syrup-making process and its history on the land.

Here’s a taste of information volunteers will get at Saturday’s program.

In this 1980s photo, Cathy (Schmidt) Bean, '84, and then EIC Program Manager Mike Hayes, '78, make maple syrup on campus.
In this 1980s photo, Cathy (Schmidt) Bean, '84, and then EIC Program Manager Mike Hayes, '78, make maple syrup on campus.

Maple syrup collecting officially started as a campus community event in 1984. But the trees were tapped to make syrup years prior to that.

Simek: “We are lucky to live in an area where the climate is just right for tapping maple trees and making syrup and we have many sugar and black maple trees on campus. We do 50 trees each year and are careful not to over tap them — that’s why we rotate every few years or so. 

We know there was a forest of maples by the Henry Ford Estate that Henry tapped for syrup right after he and Clara bought the land in 1908. Maple syrup making is mentioned in a 1911 book by Jefferson Butler, who did bird surveying for the Fords. He said how much he enjoyed watching the process. Some of those original maples that the Fords tapped are still there, but most are newer. They are descendants of the Ford’s sugar bush (that’s what we call a group of maple trees used for maple syrup). 

Of course, Indigenous people on the land tapped trees for the sap hundreds of years prior to that. We don’t have an exact record to point to, but we know maple syrup is distinctly North American and that Indigenous peoples were using it as a staple food when the Europeans arrived.”


EIC staff member Rick Simek pours sap into the outdoor maple syrup kitchen
EIC staff member Rick Simek, right, pours maple sap into the outdoor kitchen as children watch the maple syrup making process.

If you want to grow your own sugar bush, you need to plan ahead.

Simek: ““The adage goes that people who plant trees are working for their children and grandchildren. That is certainly true with sugar maples and black maples. If you plant saplings this year it would be 40 to 50 years before the trees were big enough to tap — and about 100 years before they were big enough for two buckets.

I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from planting a tree, but people should know it’s a natural process that takes a bit of time, just like many of life’s best things. So you won’t be able to collect your own sap anytime soon.

That’s why we invite people to come do this with us. We want people and families to have this experience. It will go beyond February 18 too. For two or so weeks after our tree-tapping event, we invite volunteers to help us collect the sap. We do collection around 4 p.m. daily, depending on conditions. That’s where we bring the buckets from the trees to where our sap chefs will later turn it into syrup. Sample tastes of syrup are available to anyone who drops by our syrup kitchen while it's being prepared.Want to help empty sap buckets?  If you are interested in joining a volunteer corps for a hike out to the sugar bush, please let the EIC staff know on this form.

The syrup will be available to buy in March.

Photo of EIC maple syrup bottle

Simek: “We cannot just take our pancakes up to a tree and top them with syrup. It takes 35 to 40 gallons of sap from sugar maples or black maples to make one gallon of maple syrup.

That’s because it’s mostly water — and like 2-to-4% sugar. The sap is like water that tastes just a little bit sweet. When we boil it in our outdoor kitchen, which removes the water through evaporation, we get a natural treat: yummy syrup. On average, we collect 480 to 500 gallons of sap — which is about 12 gallons of syrup. We then bottle it in small containers (250ml) to sell. When it’s ready, an order form will be available on the EIC website. I’m partial, but our syrup is really good stuff — and we know exactly where it comes from right down to the trees.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.