Earth Notes: Maple Syrup's Local Cousin

Mar 6, 2013

The sugar maple might get all the attention for it's sweet syrup. But it's southwestern cousin the box elder also has a sweet side...

Extracting syrup from a box elder
Credit Rachel Turiel

The box elder doesn't get much respect. But this knobby, oddball native of southwestern riparian areas is related to the renowned sugar maple - and like its better-known cousin, it also has a sweet side in spring.

Box elders are fast growing and well-suited to a high desert climate: they can tolerate drought, hot summers, poor soils, and sub-zero winter temperatures. But they have soft wood and an often scrubby growth form; they're susceptible to disease; and they have a tendency to shelter hordes of black and red box elder bugs.

For those reasons, the tree isn't usually highly regarded by arborists or landscapers. But springtime pulls a sweet sap up through box elder trunks and a few enterprising residents of the Colorado Plateau have begun collecting it to make a sweet syrup.

Tree tapping is a low-budget affair involving plastic buckets and tubing. Sap starts flowing during the distinct window of time when daytime temperatures reach the 40s, while nighttime temperatures remain well below freezing. As soon as the tree's flower buds begin to swell, the taste of the sap changes unpleasantly.

Box elder sap has a unique taste, more reminiscent of caramel than maple. It takes an alarming 3 gallons of sap, boiled down for hours, to produce 1 cup of syrup, while the kitchen becomes its own steam room of sweetness. But that one cup is a delight puddled onto Sunday waffles, a local celebration of spring.

Read more about experiments in making box elder syrup at: