Dakota Farmer

Making backyard maple syrup

Boxelder trees an option for creating sweet treats right outside your door

Sarah McNaughton, Editor, Dakota Farmer

May 29, 2024

6 Min Read
Boxelder tree with a bucket and tubing attached
TAPPING TREES: Around North Dakota’s Fort Stevenson State Park, visitors might see boxelder trees with buckets and tubing attached. That system allows park employees to collect maple sap to process into maple syrup and other sweet treats sold at the park. Photos by Sarah McNaughton

Do your backyard trees hold a sweet treat that’s just waiting to be found? Maple syrup is a staple at the breakfast table and beyond, and you just might find the right tree for the job out your backdoor. 

Chad Trautman, park manager at Fort Stevenson State Park in Garrison, N.D., says that finding the right tree is the first step to homemade maple syrup. “You want to identify suitable trees for tapping, and you want to make sure that your access to that tree is good come springtime,” he says.

After finding the right type of tree, assessing tree health, getting your tapping tools together, and collecting and processing sap are the next steps to making maple syrup.

Identifying trees

The trees tapped in Fort Stevenson State Park are all boxelder trees, a common sight around the Dakotas that are a part of the maple family. While winter and spring are peak seasons for sap collection, Trautman says that summer is the ideal time to gather supplies and get a tapping plan in place. They tap their trees at the end of February, when the temperature fluctuates just above and below freezing.

Boxelder trees are an adaptable, easy-to-grow maple tree that is native to North America. They typically are found near water or riverbanks, and may go by the name river maple, sugar ash, Manitoba maple or ash-leaf maple.

These deciduous trees feature ash-colored compound leaves, roundish buds and thick twigs that morph from powder blue to a purplish green through the season. The compound leaves found on this tree consist of several leaflets joined to a single stem.

Trautman says that tapping the right size boxelder at peak health is vital to the longevity of the tree.

He likens tree tapping to blood donation, where it doesn’t bring benefits but can be done without harming the tree. “We make sure it’s done within the right standards,” Trautman says. “If your tree has suffered damage from a heavy windstorm or lost branches, you might need to take a break on that tree so we don’t put more stress on it.”

Chad Trautman, Park Manager at Fort Stevenson State Park, shows a visual of approximate tree size needed to tap

Being mindful of the health of your tree can help ensure longevity.

“Trees need to be at least 10 to 12 inches in diameter, and there’s time where you need to not tap a tree if it’s not healthy,” Trautman says. “If you look at a tree and can see heart rot, it may have very little heartwood in it. That tree is likely already compromised, and you don’t want to cause any more harm.”

The park has 12 different boxelder trees that it taps each year to process sap into maple products, which they sell to park visitors. 

Tools to start tapping

Once a healthy, correct-sized tree has been identified, Trautman says to start gathering the tools needed to tap, including:

  • a power drill

  • a hammer

  • a bucket

  • a spout/tap/spile

“The tap you can order online, but all of the other components you can find at your local hardware store,” he says. “We only want to drill into the tree about 2 to 2 and a half inches, just to that heartwood in the tree.”

The silver spile (Also known as a spout or tap) goes into the heartwood of the tree

He recommends pre-marking the drill to ensure the tree is not tapped too deeply.

While between 40 and 50 gallons of maple sap is required to make maple syrup, Trautman says even their best tree falls short. “Our best tree on our best year only gave us 15 gallons, and another only had 6 gallons we could collect.”

Once the tree is tapped and the spout fitted, you can then connect your containers, such as a bucket or tube network. Trautman’s staff uses a bucket and tube collection container for the sap. Over the course of the following weeks after tapping, check the containers every few days, and transfer the sap to sealed storage before processing the sap.

If you want to create more than syrup with the maple sap you collect, Trautman says there are other ways to use it. “You can drink just the sap. It has more manganese than a cup of kale and contains electrolytes and prebiotics,” he says.

If raw sap isn’t for you, other sweet treats include maple sugar, maple candies and a whipped maple topping. “You can boil the sap and process it to get all kinds of options besides just maple syrup,” Trautman says.

For more tips and tricks to creating your backyard syrup, Trautman recommends resources from the University of Vermont Extension at uvm.edu/extension/agriculture/maple.

Container of sap/ syrup

Sap into syrup

Once you’re satisfied with the amount of sap you have collected, you’re ready to begin the process of transforming sap into syrup. First, you’ll need to boil the sap to evaporate the water. With the sap being almost 98% water, boiling the sap will reduce it to a finished syrup of 66% to 67% sugar. “When we boil the sap down to a syrup, USDA requirements say that in order to label a product as syrup, it must be 66% sugar,” Trautman says.

Due to the amount of moisture in the sap, it is not recommended to boil off the water in your home. Instead, Trautman says they use a turkey fryer and a propane tank for best temperature control. “When you boil it down, you do it outside, and we skim foam off the top and add butter or some fat in to help with the foam.”

You can finish the processing indoors when the sap becomes darker and more concentrated. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the sap until it reaches 219 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, strain the syrup to remove impurities and transfer it into bottles for use. “It can take days to process, so it’s not necessarily going to be syrup in one day,” Trautman says. “Patience pays off.”

About the Author(s)

Sarah McNaughton

Editor, Dakota Farmer, Farm Progress

Sarah McNaughton of Bismarck, N.D., has been editor of Dakota Farmer since 2021. Before working at Farm Progress, she was an NDSU 4-H Extension agent in Cass County, N.D. Prior to that, she was a farm and ranch reporter at KFGO Radio in Fargo.

McNaughton is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a bachelor’s degree in ag communications and a master’s in Extension education and youth development.

She is involved in agriculture in both her professional and personal life, as a member of North Dakota Agri-Women, Agriculture Communicators Network Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority Alumni and Professional Women in Agri-business. As a life-long 4-H’er, she is a regular volunteer for North Dakota 4-H programs and events.

In her free time, she is an avid backpacker and hiker, and can be found most summer weekends at rodeos around the Midwest.

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