Growing Sugar Maple Trees in New Zealand


 maple syrup harvest in wood

Ever since I was a little tot I've been fascinated by maple syrup. An aunt in Canada sent me a musical book about a family of bears and their maple syrup jug that played the Little Brown Jug jingle when you turned a handle. The thought that something so sweet and delicious could come out of a tree captured my young imagination. Thirty odd years later I've been doing my own impression of a bear filling my little jug. Thanks to the forethought of New Zealander Dave DeGray, I've been not only able to fill my jug, but a whole bucket of fresh sap from his secluded grove of sugar maple, right here in the coastal Tasman hills.

In 1984, Dave planted the first of 200 sugar maple trees, Acer saccharum, in a sheltered hollow on his 4-hectare property. Thirty years later and the trees are now a towering grove of graceful trunks, reaching upwards of 20 meters and carpeting the earth where 3m high scrub stood with a clean blanket of beautiful leaves.

Now an architectural designer, an early career in the US Forest Service and an active involvement in the NZ Farm Forestry Association fueled Dave’s interest in growing trees for timber, shelter, beauty and food. Obviously a man to take a long-term view of things, he planted the trees as a bit of an experiment and to benefit future generations with the knowledge of how and if sugar maples would be a viable crop for New Zealand. Before his grove was established, the received wisdom was that it could take up to 40 years before sugar maple trees could be tapped, however the remarkable growth rates Dave has achieved in Nelson have shown that some trees can achieve the tappable girth of 25cm within just 20 years.

maple syrup harvest 

Growing Conditions

The trees have not been bothered by any pests or diseases. The sugar maple is a long-lived tree that Dave believes could be tapped for at least 300 years once established. He knows of 160m old trees in India with a girth of over 1.5m. More of that long-term thinking led him to expound the idea of starting plantings of them now along suitable public land for inhabitants of future centuries to reap the benefit of. And before they are of a size to tap for syrup, they would indeed make a beautiful amenity tree. In autumn the grove glows with golden foliage clinging to the stately upright trees. The timber is also highly valued for its strength and resilience, being used in bowling alleys. You can see why the Canadians put the maple leaf on their flag.

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