Maples: How Sweet It Is

It’s amazing what you can do with two trees and a cow: Maple walnut ice cream. It was the prime ice cream of choice when I was young. It can still be found regionally, sometimes, and never overseas. Then I have to settle for chocolate ice cream, another marriage between bovine and bark.

Maple leaf, think Canadian Flag

While maples are associated with colder climates, several species of maples grow in the South and at least four of them in Florida, two of them reportedly better for making syrup than the famous sugar maples of Vermont.

To anyone who grew up in northern climes, finding maples in Florida is a bit of a challenge because they aren’t the huge, craggy trees of up country. But, they are here; shorter, thinner, but just as welcoming to the forager. They all provide the same edibles: Sap, seeds, inner bark and sweet young leaves. (You did know there was more to the maples than syrup.)

Maple seeds with wings

The four maples commonly found in Florida include the Florida Maple (Acer floridanum AY-ser flor-i-DANE-um) sugar maple (Acer saccharum  AY-ser sack-uh-RYE-num)  red maple (Acer rubrum  AY-ser ROO-brum ) and the Box Elder (Acer negundo AY-ser nuh-GUHN-doe)  with the first and last lauded for sugar production. There may also be a smattering of other maples as well, such as variations on the Southern Sugar Maple, the Chalk Maple and assorted imports such as Japanese maples. In usage, most maples are the same, no matter where they are.

The most famous maple product is maple syrup. I never “sugared” as a young man but I had a neighbor who did, Bill Gowan, and I helped him often. He had about a dozen sugar maples, and seven kids to feed. He also heated and cooked with coal so there was always a hot kitchen stove to boil the sap down to syrup, a 30-to-1 reduction in a good year.  Every spring for many years I helped him collect the sap, a daily ritual that including emptying buckets brimming with the clear liquid. Inside the kitchen his wife, Maxine nee Lambert, kept a huge two-burner copper pot boiling all day long to reduce the sap, leaving their house very humid. For my labors I always got a quart of fantastic home-made maple syrup. That on buckwheat pancakes was probably as close to gastronomic heaven as I will ever get. (Well …There is something in northern New England called an “Italian sandwich.” The ingredients are standard fair but the bread is special and makes all the difference. I know people who order the bread shipped to Florida from Maine just so they can make authentic tasting “Italian sandwiches.” That trumps homemade syrup on buckwheat pancakes… but barely.)

The “Box Elder” is a Maple

All the maples will produce sap for sugaring, but they vary in amount and quality. The odd-man-out maple, one that does not look like a maple, is Acer negundo, the Box Elder. It  was more esteemed than the sugar maples and was a major source of sugar in the South. In fact, until sorghum and sugarcane were cultivated maple trees were the main source of sugar in the New World.  Somehow Europeans never discovered how to tap their own maples. Distilling the sap is a dissertation unto itself.

Regardless of species — there are over 200 including Birch, Hickories, Sycamore and Ashes — tapping trees is done the same way. You either bore a small hole into the foot-wide or more tree, on an upward slant, and tap in a hollow spigot. Another way is  driving in a half-tube metal spigot. Driving the metal spigot makes enough of a wound to get sap without drilling a hole. A bucket is hung from either tap and collects the sap. At the end of the season the tap or spigot is removed. Drilled holes are filled with a hardwood dowel. Next year you tap in a different spot.

Next on the list of maple edibles, in nutritional terms, are the winged seeds, actually samaras. To eat them you removed the wings and then parch, roast or boil them. Each winged helicopter pair produces two seeds. You can also eat them raw and should try one first. If it is bitter you can leach the seeds to reduce the bitterness. If they don’t taste good, take heart. Like acorns, they can vary tree to tree so try another one if they are not palatable.

Carolina Red Maple Leaves

The inner bark, the cambium, is next on the maple nutrition list, the same bark that delivers the sap. It can be eaten raw, boiled or roasted. Indians also dried it then pounded it into a powder, as they did inner barks of several trees including pine. Left over fiber can be sifted out. Lastly, young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. They are sweet and delicate. But like all greens, provide the least amount of nutrition. By the way, red maple leaves are toxic to horses.

Euopeans never tapped their maple trees

Euopeans never tapped their maple trees

Acer is the Dead Latin name for the Maple and literally means “sharp” perhaps because it was used to make spears and lances. Floridanum means Florida. Rubrum means red. Saccharum, sweet, and Negundo, which is from the Sanskrit word nirgundi which literally means “that which protects the body from diseases.” The Box Elder maple did not get that name because it was good at reducing disease but because it resembled another plant that does, the Vitex negundo.  The word “maple” started out as mapulder in Old Saxon then mapultreow in Old English then mapel in Middle English.

Maple Beer

Francois Andre Michaux, 1770 – 1855

This was written by botanist F. A. Michaux, left,  in 1853, in his book “North American Sylva.” “Upon four gallons of boiling water pour one quart of Maple molasses [syrup] add a little yeast or leaven to excite the fermentation, and a spoonful of the essence of spruce: A very pleasant and salutary drink is thus obtained.” Francois is the son of  Andre Michaux, also a famous botanist, and for whom Gopher Apples got their botanical name, Licania Michauxii. Many Internet amateurs get the two botanists confused and say the photo at the left from 1851 is of the senior Michaux. Don’t think so. The senior Michaux died in 1802 some 20 years before the first photograph was made. To see a younger rendition of Francois read Gopher Apples.

Maple Seeds Taste Like Peas

Maple Seeds Taste Like Peas

To collect seeds run your hand down the branch stripping them. One at a time peel off the outer skin, what we called the “whirlygig” when I was a kid. Cut the end and squeeze out the seed. There is a seed on each “wing.” They resemble peas or beans. Taste some seeds, if they are not bitter enjoy them raw, or roast them, or even boil them. If they are bitter — that varies with species and when harvested — you will need to leach them like acorns either soaking in several changes of cold water or cooking in boiled water. To roast seeds put them in a 350 F oven for 10 minutes or less. You can also dehydrate the seeds. Roasted or dry seeds can be ground into flour.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

Maple Seeds With Wings Sprouting

Maple Seeds With Wings Sprouting

IDENTIFICATION: There are two groups of maples. One usually has opposite leaves, lobed, think Canadian Flag. The others have alder shaped leaves, ovals often with teeth. The leaves of the Box Elder can be  green and white mixed.

TIME OF YEAR: For sugaring and collecting inner bark, the spring with warm days and cold nights. Seeds in the late winter/early spring, young leaves when ever present, best in spring. Bark as needed. Here in Florida maples can be seeding in late December to early January. Much later in the spring farther north.

ENVIRONMENT: Southern maples like damp, moist soil, river banks. I know several that grow in the Wekiva River swamp. In northern climes, on forested hill and mountain sides.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Sap has to be boiled to reduce it 30 to 50 times, seeds raw, parched, roasted or boiled without wings. Taste first for bitterness. Inner bark dried, pounded, then cooked. You can eat the wings if you don’t want o remove them but they cam be bitter and hard to digest.

HERB BLURB

Native American Indians used an infusion of maple bark to wash wounds, treat back or limb pains, hemorrhoids, postmenopausal ailments and as a vaginal wash.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Donal O'Brien September 27, 2016 at 15:43

Is the samara or seed of Acer pseudoplatanus safe for people to eat as a snack? I have read that it is on some websites but others report it is toxic for horses. If not is there any maple trees trees that produce seeds poisonous to people?

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Faith July 8, 2015 at 13:29

I am using soaked red maple leaves to wrap an entire brined turkey to cook in the oven in a clay pot. Was going to smoke the turkey but I do not feel like stoking a fire in 90 degree summer heat. Maple leaves impart a fantastic taste to chicken and other meats.
I made samaras pesto this spring and it was fantastic.

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Tina June 24, 2015 at 11:19

I get lots of little maple sprouts popping up all over the yard this time of year, and I’m wondering how much of the tiny maple is edible. I’ve eaten leaves, flowers and seeds from adult maples.
But for the little maple sprouts, I’m wondering if I can eat the whole thing, roots and stem as well as the leaves?

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Jim Takita April 9, 2015 at 20:17

I’ve eaten the flowers and young leaves of the young red maple to no ill effect as a post breakfast snack. Has any others done the same?

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Cynthia February 13, 2015 at 22:20

Are swamp maples not real maples?

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Green Deane February 14, 2015 at 19:55

Yes, Swamp Maples” are real maples. Red maples are a specific variety and have red leaves, quite common as an ornamental up north. I also recall the leaves of the red maple are toxic to horses.

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Cynthia February 13, 2015 at 10:14

I have a question for you: I have tons of Red Maple trees here in Polk County Florida. I would like to extract the Maple Syrup but at the moment the ground is waterlogged and it is very difficult to get inside the forest to do the job; it is really a thicket. Would it be possible to put the taps during late April beginning of May and leave them closed in the trees to open them during early spring to be ready for sap collection? This winter has rained a lot and my land is just a swamp. Thank you

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Green Deane February 13, 2015 at 21:13

Red Maples in Florida? Perhaps you mean swamp maples that produce red seeds.

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Cynthia Hamilton February 13, 2015 at 09:52

I want to thank you for all the information you have given. We have 27 acres of red maple here in Florida and I do not know who to turn to in order to get to know /use these trees more. If you know of anybody here please let me know. We are in Polk County Many Thanks

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kim October 9, 2014 at 00:45

hello. i live on the south coast of oregon and we have all kinds of maples here. in particular the big leaf maple. are they still in the edible species type?

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Loren January 28, 2015 at 16:54

I’m also in southern oregon, I’m going to try tapping the maples down here soon. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Loren January 28, 2015 at 16:55

Also trying to find out what other trees I could try as well.

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Don May 21, 2014 at 16:36

I learned that you can tap from the lower, young limbs and attach a bag to the weighted limb to collect the sap. You don’t get as much, but at least can get some water.

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Shawn S May 20, 2014 at 22:47

I have a question. You said that Acer negundo, the box elder maple was the odd man out. What did you mean by this? I box elder maple not to be used as a food source as are the other maples, or did you mean something different? Thanks for your time.

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Green Deane May 21, 2014 at 12:56

It doesn’t look like the rest of the maples.

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Marcia Porter February 10, 2014 at 15:28

Want to plant a red maple tree as a memorium in a dog park. Would it be harmful for dogs to eat the seeds?

Dog lover Tampa, Fl

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Green Deane February 10, 2014 at 16:15

Dogs usually have no interest in Maples. The seeds are bitter so if they ate a lot perhaps but that is unlikely.

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Ellen August 28, 2013 at 23:44

Some species don’t seem to have much of a seed. The Norway maple (Acer platanoides) in our yard puts out flat seeds like pieces of paper. But the silver maples do produce rounder seeds, like tiny almonds. We get mountains of seeds from both, so I should try them. They’re really edible raw?

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Brian August 27, 2013 at 20:22

I would assume that maple flowers are also edible, but I can’t seem to find a reference to confirm this. I’ve tried those of A. glabrum, A. grandidentatum, and A. negundo, all of which were satisfactory. Can anyone cite a reference for the flowers of these species?

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Kaybee July 24, 2013 at 11:09

My dog eats the leaves of our Japanese red queen acer tree and seems quite happy doing it. are they safe for a dog to eat? are they safe for humans to eat?
thanks,
Kaybee

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Joyce E Forager March 21, 2013 at 16:32

When in Florida is a good time to tap maples?

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Green Deane March 24, 2013 at 18:54

Early spring, just like up north.

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RM McWilliams July 24, 2013 at 22:56

As Deane says, before the sap from maples (or birch trees) is boiled, it tastes like water with just a hint of sweetness. You can concentrate the sap somewhat by freezing a lot of the water out of it, but you will still have ‘sweet water’. It won’t be syrup until it has been boiled. There just is no such thing as ‘raw maple syrup’.

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Marley March 17, 2013 at 16:54

Is raw mayple surup healier for the body than boiled? Does it taste good raw?

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Green Deane March 18, 2013 at 14:08

It is mildly sweet water.

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RM McWilliams December 20, 2014 at 19:10

There is no such thing as ‘raw maple syrup’. Before being boiled down, it is just sap. Howver – the water content of the sap can be reduced somewhat by allowing the sap to freeze, which it will naturally do if left outside overnight, as the ‘sugaring’ season occurs when daytime temperatures are warm, but the nights are still below freezing. This results in a slightly sweeter ‘water’ like substance that is pleasant to drink, but is still barely sweet to those accustomed to soft drinks, and other highly sweetened foods and drinks sold in the USA today. Allowing some of the water to freeze out of the sap before boiling does reduce the time and the amount of fuel neccessary to make maple syrup.

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Trevor Primm March 8, 2013 at 21:17

Where would I be able to find a list of all the trees that can be tapped?

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Robert M. November 15, 2011 at 12:42

In an emergency situation, maples can be tapped for their water content as it takes a lot of maple sap to get enough sugar for syrup. The sap being mostly water. Another good friction fire wood also.

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