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Posted April 3, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Sap flows for first talk of museum's 2009 series

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By Stacey Keenan -- Daily Staff Correspondent

WINCHESTER -- When most people head to the grocery store, many goods that end up in the shopping cart are taken for granted as staples, not luxury items.

Such is the case with sweeteners and store-brand maple syrup -- items that can be found in many kitchen pantries. But that hasn't always been true.

In the early 19th century, anything sweet was an expensive luxury in the Shenandoah Valley. Early settlers soon turned to sugar maple trees, collecting the sap and making their own tasty additives.

The history and methods of collecting sap and turning it into Virginia maple syrup will be the focus Tuesday of "When the Sap Flows," the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley's first Tuesday Garden Talk of 2009.

"People used to make lots of it in the valley. When the settlers arrived here in the late 1700s, early 1800s, they went to the sugar maple trees further up the mountains. [The trees] weren't in the low parts of the valley," says Mary Stickley, gardens and grounds manager at the museum. "Anything sweet was a good thing. Before sugar was around, [the settlers] didn't have access to a lot of sweet things. Sap was used as a sweetener for a number of different things."

Frederick County resident John Stevens, a member and former president of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener Association, will lead the discussion.

"I'll give a basic introduction -- the history of syrup production, how to tap a tree, and how to process, boil and strain [the sap]. I'll also talk about what a sugar bush is, and what you need to have in your sugar shack, the place where you're making [the syrup]," says Stevens.

Stevens, who makes his own maple syrup as a hobby, hopes to have some samples available for participants to taste. Stevens only made syrup during part of the season this year, ending up with about four gallons of syrup after tapping nearly 30 sugar maple trees.

"The process takes a long time the way I do it," he says.

Depending on the type of tree used and the season, it can take up to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Sap begins to rise in trees as winter turns to spring, and the earlier in the season, the better. The sap tends to be the sweetest at the beginning of the season, taking less to make syrup than at the end of the season, he says.

"There's a difference between commercial and at-home production," Stevens says. "Store-brand maple syrup is usually just corn syrup with maple flavoring. Store-brand is nothing like real maple syrup."

Tuesday Garden Talks take place on the first Tuesday of the month from April through November. No registration is required. The $6 admission charge for non-members is the cost of entry into the museum's gardens, so those who attend the lecture also can tour the six acres of gardens, Stickley says.

"The whole idea behind [the talks] is to teach about a lot of different aspects of gardening, specifically how-to gardening, as well as history and different interesting aspects of gardening," she says. "I think we started them when I first got here in 2003, and we got into the themes accidentally. Last year was wild life, and this year we're leaning toward history."

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley's first Tuesday Garden Talk, "When the Sap Flows," takes place Tuesday from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the museum at 901 Amherst St. in Winchester. Admission is free for museum members and $6 for non-members. For more information, call the museum at (888) 556-5799.

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