A College of Forestry team is on a mission to grow the maple industry in the PNW

The sugar maple has a reputation as a powerhouse for maple syrup production – but it’s not the only maple game around. An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by the College of Forestry is at the forefront of a movement to tap into Oregon’s bigleaf maple – and put the Pacific Northwest on the maple syrup map.

One of the main differences between maple trees is the concentration of sugar in the sap. Sap is a key part of making maple syrup, as it’s harvested from maple trees and then boiled into syrup. Acer saccharum, commonly known as the sugar maple, is loaded with sugar, as its name suggests, which is why it’s become such a go-to tree for maple syrup production.

Acer macophyllum, aka the bigleaf maple, has less sugar in its sap – usually about one-third to one-half as much as the sugar maple. But, modern technology is helping to render this a nonissue as material like food-grade vacuum tubing and equipment like reverse osmosis machines can cost effectively turn less sugary sap into syrup. The vacuum tubing system is able to extract a high volume of sap to work with and reverse osmosis removes 75 percent of the water from the sap, leaving concentrated sucrose and healthy nutrients behind.

“This technology is a gamechanger for the bigleaf maple,” says Eric Jones, the lead principal investigator for the project, and instructor and assistant professor of practice in the department of forest ecosystems and society.

“This is a great economic opportunity for Oregonians to expand the industry and take advantage of the fact that bigleaf maples are really abundant in Oregon,” he says. “The Pacific Northwest bigleaf maple can produce a delicious, unique, and complex maple syrup, along with other products like nutritional maple water, wonderful edible flowers, and beautiful lumber and firewood.”

Jones assembled a research team that spans the university and includes scholars and students from anthropology, geography, environmental arts and humanities, economics, ethnobiology and engineering. The College of Forestry is represented by graduate students Melanie Douville and John Scheb, professor emeritus Barb Lachenbruch, Ron Reuter, associate professor and program director of natural resources, Badege Bishaw, an agroforester and College of Forestry courtesy faculty, and Tiffany Fegel, a coordinator with OSU’s forestry and natural resources extension.

The team was awarded a million dollars in funding through a pair of multiyear awards from the federal government to help build a sustainable maple industry in Oregon. The project is focused on promoting bigleaf maple tapping and providing training, tools and education to landowners interested in exploring commercial opportunities.

The team also works to mitigate the risks involved with managing and sugaring bigleaf maples. Examples of project work includes incorporating food safety standards into commercial production, investigating how wildlife, certain diseases, and different climatic conditions affect bigleaf maple stands, the relation between soil and flavor, and creating business case studies that landowners can learn from.

“I think there’s an infectious nature of tapping bigleaf maples and we’re trying to help landowners find the easiest and most economically and ecologically prudent path to get into tapping maple,” says Jones.

With climate change ushering in greater uncertainty about the future of Pacific Northwest forests, the bigleaf team is interested in how the trees will fare under changing conditions.

“The bigleaf maple is a tenacious tree, as any forester will attest to, and perhaps it has a role to play in helping mitigate climate change,” says Jones.

While hotter and drier weather in some areas will negatively impact bigleaf maple populations, the trees may prove particularly resilient in certain microclimates. Jones is currently serving as an advisor on a pilot project in Washington, where the group is planting bigleaf maple trees on old dairy land as part of a carbon offset pilot program.

Jones has always been interested in wild foods and plants in Oregon and sees them as an avenue to promote stewardship activity and grow recreational and economic opportunities across the region. He hopes that a growing maple industry will invite people to develop a deeper appreciation for the land and find new ways to engage with the environment through the bigleaf maple.

A major goal of the project is to grow a culture around maple in the Pacific Northwest, much like exists in the Northeast, where the sugar maple thrives. In the spring of 2023, the bigleaf team will hold the first Oregon bigleaf maple festival and conference. Email Jones at eric.t.jones@oregonstate.edu for more information and check out the project’s public website Oregon Tree Tappers for updates and additional information about tapping bigleaf maple.

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5 thoughts on “Tapping into Oregon’s Maple Trees

  1. I’ve been trying to get people into this for nearly two decades. Mostly I just want to taste it on pancakes. Also, we’ve got a few other maples to look at, although they might not be economically viable in terms of volume…

    Reply
      • Hi Willis. Everything west of the Cascades pretty much, but within that region the Willamette Valley Basin is pretty incredible. Some pockets along the Columbia River from Hood River to ??? Maybe Wauna? At some point west when you are too close to the ocean it probably isn’t worth it, not enough freezing nights…unless you are high up. We’d love to hear about landowners in places like Otis or Hebo that are trying to tap to know if they are having any success. The coastal mountains on the west side of the Willamette Valley Basin seem to be the perfect mix of marine moisture and freezing nights during winter.

        Reply
  2. I took Tree Identification in 1964 from Casey Randall who was the author of our text, “Manual of Oregon Trees and Shrubs”. One of the notes in that book, which I still use, was that Bigleaf Maple sap had a high sugar content, but that it was seldom used for syrup. When I retired several years ago and was able to spend more time on our tree farm near Chehalis, I thought I would give sugaring a try to make use of my overabundance of maples. I was surprised by how much sap the trees produced.

    I boiled the sap over a fire on the farm to make about 50:1 syrup by volume and it still is not as sweet as commercial stuff at the store. It has a smokey flavor from the fire.

    This is a hobby for me, and it would really be a stretch to compete with the product at Cosco without some major investment- reverse osmosis, tubing, etc.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the tip about the maple sap mention in Randall, I’ll look for that. I see the odd sentence here and there in old texts but I’m waiting to stumble on a long forgotten text going into detail…it won’t surprise me to find out it exists. Howell, Wiley, maybe in their notes!

      Reply

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