Long before Splenda, saccharin and high fructose corn syrup, there was another kind of sweetener, something simple and natural, if a little time intensive to make: maple syrup.
“In the days before the pioneers got here, this was the way Native Americans sweetened their food,” says Jenny Aley, the park naturalist at Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton.
Red maples are native and common to the D.C. area, and many grow in Wheaton Regional Park. Sugar maples are less common but also grow in the park. Both trees produce sap for syrup. That’s why for about 40 years, Brookside Nature Center has been reenacting the art of making maple syrup at the annual Maple Sugar Festival. Last year about 1,500 people visited the center for the day-long event, wandering among the trees to different stations and learning how maple syrup is made. Most people stay for about two hours.
“Everybody seems to be really enthralled with what we do,” says Rick Allison, who has been volunteering at the festival for about 15 years with his wife, Nancy. From toddlers to senior citizens, he says, there’s not just one target audience. It’s a family affair.