How to identify trees for maple sap tapping

Written by david thompson
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How to identify trees for maple sap tapping
Tap sugar maples after identifying them by leaves or bark. (Collecting the sap from a maple tree image by Rob Hill from

All maple trees have some sugar in their sap, but the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) averages two per cent sugar, twice as much as other species, according to Carl Vogt in the article "Identifying Maple Trees for Syrup Production." To make the most syrup from the least sap, look for sugar maples, preferably while they still have their leaves in the fall, when they're easier to identify. Mark them in preparation for tapping in the spring. Identifying them in winter is more challenging and requires attention to detail.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Examine the shape of the leaf in between the points. Sugar maples have typical maple leaves with three to five lobes, each with smaller points, like the leaf on the Canadian flag. You can distinguish them from red maple leaves by noticing the curved shape in between the points. Red maple leaves come to a "V" rather than a "U" in between their points. The Norway maple, an imported tree that you might see in yards or along streets, has similar leaves but they're wider and larger than sugar maple leaves.

  2. 2

    Look up at the bare branches in winter, if you can't examine the leaves, and notice whether the twigs grow in pairs opposite each other. If they do, the tree may be a maple, ash or one of a few other species. Look around the base to see if you can find fallen leaves to identify it as a sugar maple.

  3. 3

    Examine the bark. A young sugar maple has smooth grey bark but as it ages, it acquires random vertical furrows and becomes darker grey or brown. The bark may split into narrow strips that peel away from the trunk on the edges.

  4. 4

    Examine the tip of a twig, if you know a tree is a maple but want to tell a sugar maple from another kind. If the bud is brown or reddish brown, with a pointed tip, it's probably a sugar maple. If the bud is more reddish and has a blunt tip, it's probably a red maple.

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