A Time-Honored Rite of Spring

Westwood Hills Nature Center teaches how maple syrup is made.

Every spring, when the nights are still below freezing but the days are above 40 degrees, the sap in maple trees begins running, and Westwood Hills offers maple syrup classes to preschool kids, scouts, birthday parties, schools and the public. In these classes, students of all ages learn the steps in making maple syrup: tapping, collecting, cooking, filtering and bottling. It all begins when naturalists like Westwood Hills’ Becky McConnell bundle up in winter gear or head out wearing shorts (you know Minnesota weather) to find the sugar bush.

The sugar bush is a group of sugar maple trees. Not just any maple tree will do: it must be a minimum of 31 inches around so the tree doesn’t get damaged by the tapping process. It typically takes 25 to 30 years for a tree to grow big enough to tap. “Trees are not making this sap for us,” says McConnell. “The tree is using the sap for energy to get through the winter.”

After the class hikes to their sugar bush, “we drill a hole and tap it with the spile,” says McConnell. “It may start dripping right away or not, but we hang the bucket and leave it.”

Sap looks like water, and if it is dripping, the naturalist will let participants taste it. It’s generally said to taste like water with a hint of maple syrup flavor. Once collected, “we pour the sap into a large pot and using our outside wood stove we boil and boil and boil until we get scared it will burn, then we finish it on a stove inside,” says McConnell. “It is ready when the temperature is 7 degrees above the boiling point of water, or 219 degrees.” Typically, 40 gallons of sap boil down to one gallon of syrup. Maple syrup students get to eat a silver dollar-sized pancake topped with Westwood Hills’ own maple syrup, which is not made for commercial purposes but only for tasty educational ones.

The kids get the benefits of walking around outside, seeing where a familiar food comes from and being creatively stimulated by hands-on activities. “It’s fun the see the light bulb moments,” McConnell says.  

A preschool maple syrup class for ages 3 to 5 is scheduled for March 6 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. The cost is $8 per child for residents, $9 for non-residents; supervising adult is free. Two all-ages maple syrup classes are scheduled: March 19 and March 29, both from 1 to 3 p.m. They cost $6 per person for residents, $8 non-residents; children over 2 are considered students and need to be accompanied by a paid adult. (All classes require pre-registration.) Westwood Hills Nature Center, 8300 W. Franklin Ave. To register or to inquire about programs for schools, scouts, birthday parties or the public, go to the website here or call 952.924.2544.