Sugar Maple Research to Save the Trees & Syrup Industry

by Duane Nichols on October 4, 2017

Climate research on maple tree sap

Maple Watch has its focus on the color of the maple tree sap

From a Bulletin of Forest Watch, Univ.of New Hampshire

Can the sap of sugar maple trees serve as a window on forest health? A research collaboration aimed at answering that question was inspired by New Hampshire maple syrup producer Martha Carlson’s curiosity about unusually dark sap she observed in 2009, the year after a significant drought.

Maple Watch is a collaboration of the Northern Research Station, New Hampshire maple syrup producers, the University of New Hampshire and New Hampshire high school students. Senior Research Plant Pathologist of Walter Shortle the Northern Research Station and University of New Hampshire professors, Barrett Rock and Sterling Tomellini, are exploring the chemistry of sugar maple sap and whether environmental stress such as drought can change its chemistry in a way that might allow researchers to monitor trees’ health as climate and habitat suitability shift. “If sap can signal problems before we actually see trees dying, we may have a chance to do something,” Shortle said. “By the time we see branches starting to die, it’s too late.”

Sugar maple’s range extends from South Carolina to New England and the Lake States, and in order to sample the entire range, Shortle and his colleagues are beginning the research by working with maple syrup producers who are willing to serve as citizen scientists. One of the first challenges is to develop methods for chemical analysis of sap. Once scientists have established methods of analysis, they will experimentally test their ideas by exposing trees to environmental stress to see how sap chemistry is changed.

While its roots are in research, Maple Watch has grown to include hands-on science opportunities for New Hampshire students. A collaborator developed a program around Maple Watch research that gives high school students opportunities to learn to analyze maple sap at their schools using modern laboratory equipment. The program also provides training for teachers through the University of New Hampshire.

For Carlson, Maple Watch represents an opportunity for sugar makers to participate in research that has the potential to help everyone who cares about sugar maples to “see” effects of climate change. “Many things are changing in America’s forests today,” Carlson said. “Perhaps our project can serve as a model for other timberland owners and forest scientists for collaborative and imaginative research.”

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