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Maple

Maple trees are very useful for humans, notably for their sap and wood. Animals feed on the bark, buds, branches and fruit.
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© Shutterstock / Le Do

Origin of sugar maple cultivation

The vast majority (85%) of the world production of maple syrup comes from Canada (Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia). Long before settlers arrived in Canada, the indigenous peoples were already harvesting the sap and boiling it to obtain maple syrup. Maple sugar was the first sugar to be produced in eastern parts of North America and was used as a table sugar until 1875, when cane sugar arrived on the market.

Maple syrup production and harvesting

Thanks to photosynthesis (the use of sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar), during the summer the maple tree makes sugar, which is transformed into starch in the roots when autumn arrives. At the beginning of spring, the sugar maple finds the energy needed to restart its metabolism by tapping into this sugar, which itself draws water from the soil enabling the sap to recirculate. It is the water of the sugar maple, rather than the sap, which is harvested in spring. This water is made up of around 97% water, 2% sugar, organic acids, minerals and maple taste precursors. The harvest is stopped as soon as the much more bitter sap reaches the trunk. A maple ree contains almost 500 litres of water, and only around 10% is harvested each year. It takes 40 litres of this water to produce one litre of maple syrup.

Maple varieties and their products

Maples belong to the family of Sapindaceae. Most of them are deciduous. Their small yellow, orange, red or green flowers attract bees which pollinate them. Their fruit, samaras, are dry and winged (they are often called ‘helicopters’).

There are many different species of maples, originally from the mountains of Europe, the Mediterranean region, North America and Asia. One of the most well-known is the sugar maple or rock maple. It is one of the most important trees in Canada and Ontario and has been designated Canada’s national tree (a maple leaf even adorns the Canadian flag). It is a hardwood tree, pale in colour and with dense fibres, which can reach heights of 35 metres and live up to 400 years. Preferring deep and humid soils, it can survive in the shade, but grows in sunlight.

In North America, maples are used for the production of maple syrup and a number of by-products such as sugar, sweets or maple butter. Their wood is used to make floors or furniture, but is also used as firewood, as it gives off a lot of heat and burns slowly. Finally, some species with distinctive leaves and flowers are used as ornamental shrubs.