How We Make Maple Syrup at Great Parks

As the nights drop below freezing and the days slowly warm, a trip to Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve is filled with the sound of sap dripping steadily into buckets placed carefully along the trail. The sweet sap of the maple trees is flowing and the team here at Great Parks of Hamilton County begins collection. Soon, this watery liquid will be transformed into the sweet, sticky treat we all love through the simple process of boiling.

What is Sap?

Sap is a watery liquid that carries nutrients throughout the tree. While it contains trace amounts of many naturally occurring biological chemicals, the sugars are what we’re after. These sugars make up around 2-3 percent of the volume of sap in sugar maples, with red maples coming in just under that amount.

Where do the sugars come from?

The sugar found in the maple sap is a product of photosynthesis from the previous growing season. Thinking back to those high school biology classes, you may well remember that plants use the energy contained within sunlight to create simple sugars from carbon dioxide and water. That sugar is then stored in the sap through the winter so that it is readily accessible when the tree starts to grow once again in the spring. This energy is then used to support the growth of the new leaves until the leaves are large enough to support photosynthesis.

Why does the sap flow?

This is a complicated question. Various types of trees will have sap runs at different times of year, so there are likely many factors at play. In the case of the maples, the freeze/thaw cycle plays an important role. As the sap freezes, a negative pressure is created within the tree, as the sap is sucked into gas-filled cells that neighbor the conductive column. As the day warms and the sap begins to thaw, a positive pressure is created and sap is forced out through the spile placed in the tree.

Spile in a maple tree dripping sap
Sap drips from the spile as the days get warmer

How can I collect sap from my maple tree?

If you have access to a sugar maple or red maple at least 10 inches in diameter, it can be a fun project to collect the sap and make your own syrup. Use a drill with a 5/16th inch bit, a mallet, and a collection container of some sort, such as a bucket or milk jug. The only special equipment needed is a spile, which can be purchased easily online or through local suppliers of maple products.

After you’ve gathered your supplies, it’s as simple as drilling a hole around 2 inches deep, tapping in the spile and hanging the container. When the days are above freezing, collect the sap and store it in the freezer until you have enough to boil.

What next?

Once you’ve collected a decent amount of sap, you simply boil it and boil it and boil it some more. Taking the sap from 2-3 percent sugar to the 66 percent required to make syrup releases a lot of water, making this an outdoor project. On average, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of finished syrup, so gather some friends and spend the afternoon around the fire.

Alternatively, using a turkey fryer or a large pot on a grill is an excellent choice. When the liquid level gets too low, bring it in and finish it on the stove where the temperature can be more easily controlled. Once the liquid reaches 219 degrees, you have your very own homemade maple syrup!

jars of maple syrup being graded by color
Completed syrup is graded by how dark it comes out. The darker the syrup, the more robust the taste

Where can I learn more?

Take a peek at the Great Parks calendar for program opportunities and check out the following resources for information on all things maple, including everything from current research to delicious recipes.

OSU Extension –

Ohio Maple Producers –

Proctor Maple Research Center – University of Vermont

Cornell Maple Program –