Maple sugar celebration returns at Sewickley Heights' Fern Hollow

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 8:24 p.m.

Staff and volunteers at Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley Heights might not be able to collect enough sugar water from maple trees there to supply the syrup for its annual Pancake Breakfast and Maple Sugaring Celebration, but they do supply a wealth of maple sugaring education to the public.

This week, Fern Hollow nature guides are sponsoring two-hour walks and programs for second-graders to demonstrate how maple trees are tapped for the sugar water that becomes syrup.

Maple sugaring-related activities for children and a historical maple sugaring display also will be featured at this year's seventh annual breakfast and celebration, which is planned from from 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturday.

Before students come to the center for the tours, Susie Moffett, center educator and program coordinator, makes presentations a week ahead of time to get children excited about the syrup and provide some information about tree physiology.

“Some kids have no idea where maple syrup comes from,” said April Claus, director of environmental education.

Children participating in Fern Hollow's programs get the chance to drill into a dead tree and insert a spile to experience the tapping process. They also can taste the sweet water from a live tree.

If there is enough snow during Fern Hollow tours and the day of the pancake breakfast, children also will be invited to try out the center's new snowshoes. Claus said they were purchased with a grant last year but not used because there wasn't enough snow.

She said that in the “old days,” when communities got together to tap maple sugar, boil it and have a town celebrations, many of the people used snowshoes to get around.

For the Fern Hollow staff, the maple sugaring season started off in mid-February this year, and, so far, about eight gallons has been collected. Moffett said it usually takes 40 gallons of sweet water to make one gallon of syrup, more or less, depending on the temperature. The best scenario to get the sweet water flowing is having warm days and cold nights.

The sweet water collected at Fern Hollow is boiled down into syrup by Elizabeth Burnett, a volunteer, in an evaporator that she owns.

Burnett owns a farm and makes syrup as a hobby. She mixes Fern Hollow's sweet water in with her own and then gives some of it back to the center to give out to other volunteers and children who visit to taste.

Moffett said the first time this was done, Fern Hollows was able to give out about 12 bottles of syrup, and last year, only three bottles were made. This year, it's hard to tell how much they will have, she said. In one day, they collected five gallons right after tapping, but since then, they've collected only another two to three gallons. Burnett will make the syrup at a later date.

Fern Hollow will use syrup made in Beaver County at the breakfast, which will feature traditional pancakes and buckwheat, sausage and a drink.

The syrup also will be used for a maple sugar celebration and pancake breakfast April 6 and 7 at Bradys Run in Brighton Township. Jim Shaner, executive director of the conservation district, said the sugar water begins in January to move up from roots into the tree, where it is tapped. Moffett said before she came to work at Fern Hollow, she didn't know much about maple syrup.

“It's exciting,” Moffett said. “I can't wait to come every day and see how much sap we collected.”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or

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