July 11, 2017
Say the words, “as Canadian as…” anywhere in this country, and chances are a fellow citizen will say, “maple syrup.” We don’t think anything could be more Canadian. Even hockey and the word “eh” have to take a back seat.
A whopping 80% of the world’s maple syrup supply comes from here. Last year, it amounted to 73 million litres. (In case you’re wondering, that’s 29 Olympic-size swimming pools full, plus about 200,000 additional litres to pour on your pancakes after your swim.)
This may help explain why the leaf in the middle of our flag isn’t just any maple leaf, it’s a sugar maple leaf from the kind of tree most commonly tapped for maple syrup production. Sugar maples got their name based on the high sugar content of their sap.
Canadians would know; we’ve been boiling that sap down to syrup for a very long time. In Canada, maple syrup production is one of the only agricultural practices not imported from elsewhere. The indigenous people of the Northeast made maple syrup long before the first Europeans came here. So long ago, in fact, that archeological evidence of the process goes way, way back, but knowledge of its exact origin is long lost. European settlers took it up soon after their arrival, establishing large-scale maple syrup production by the late 1600’s. Until relatively recent times, it was the main source of sugar here.
Over the years, technological innovation has brought efficiencies, but the basic recipe remains the same. Once the spring thaw begins, starch stored in the maple trees’ roots for the winter rises in sap through the trunks. Maples are typically tapped once they’re 30 to 40 years old. Depending on the diameter of its trunk, a tree can handle between one and three taps, producing an average of from 35 to 50 litres of sap in a four-to-eight-week season. (That’s less than 10% of the tree’s total sap.)
Maples can continue to be tapped until they’re over 100 years old. So maybe it’s just possible that the maple syrup you have for breakfast this year, the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation, is from trees that first took root when modern-day Canada did.