Maple Trees as a Source of Food
There are a wide variety of maples, each with its distinctive features and similarities.
Seeds and Sap
There is hardly a North American alive that has not had some form of maple sugar or maple product at some point in their life. For most of us, it is maple syrup that we had on pancakes. For others, it was maple butter or maple candies. But outside of First Nations people, few people have had maple seeds as a form of food. Yet maple trees are extremely common throughout the northern hemisphere, covering almost all of north America, Europe and much of Asia. Maple is so common, it has been linked to the Canadian lexicon as a symbol and is incorporated in the flag of Canada. Why is this natural source of food not used?
Maple trees grow between 6 meters (20 feet) to 20 meters (70 feet) tall with some up to 32 meters (100 feet). Some maples are so small they are actually considered to be shrubs. Maples can live to be about 300 years old and they are noted for the leaves turning a beautiful array colours in the fall, typically in brilliant yellows, oranges, vermillion, reds, maroon and a mix of these. The Japanese maple turns a brilliant crimson colour in the fall and some varieties retain a reddish hue all year. In the spring, the red Japanese maple display bright orange and red colours. Their sap is harvested, starting in February and particularly in Quebec and Ontario to make sugar, maple syrup, and maple taffy. Their wood is often used to make furniture as it can be highly desired, especially in the birds eye pattern. The wood is also kiln burned in a reduction atmosphere to make very high quality charcoal. Dried maple wood is used to smoke food as well, usually for smoking salmon, fish and beef jerky.
While each one of maple species leaf looks very different, they are all considered to be maple trees. The most common type of maple tree is the sugar maple as it has been cultivated for centuries in Quebec, Ontario and the US north east in New Hampshire, Maine and New York. It also grows in the United States and it has the traditional maple leaf that we have come to recognize and is depicted in stylized form in the Canadian flag. There are more than 125 types of maple trees in existence. There are a few pictures included here to give you and impression of what their leaves look like to show their variation. Their seeds have a very similar appearance, typically in pairs and winged. They are shed in the spring, summer and fall, depending on the particular tree. The seeds are loved by birds and rodents such as squirrels. They are also good for people, though the taste can be bitter due to the tannin in them. This can be boiled out and the seeds made into a meal that can be used in a variety of ways. First Nations would collect them and preserve them, using them through the winter. It was the First Nations that introduced the Maple to the Europeans when they arrived on the shores of what is now called Canada and the United States.
Collect the winged seeds as they fall in the spring, summer and fall. The sugar maple is the most desired, but all maples are suitable candidates and considered edible. The wings are easily removed and then you can shell the seeds. They shell easier if they are sun dried. If dried, they can be stored in a cool dry place out of reach of mice and other rodents. They can be boiled whole to remove the tannin and the water discarded or recycled. The seeds than can be made into a mash and incorporated into flour to make bread or cooked with other ingredients for a nutritious meal.
Easy to recognize, maple trees grow everywhere. There are likely plenty in your city. Most of the seeds just fall and are swept up by street sweepers of any one of us who rake them up during lawn care. Next time, just don't throw them into the trash or the compost, but process them for free and available food. In the spring, starting in February, the sap starts to run. Typically, small hollow tubes are nailed into the side of the tree and buckets are hung to collect the watery sap. This is then gathered together in large vats and the water boiled off to make anything from syrup to maple butter. These are then bottled and shipped to locations around the planet. Typically, the sugar maple is exploited, but other maples, though less productive, they will also yield sap. Next, we will look at the humble acorn.