Lately, sugar maples have become the polar bears of trees. Their unbeatable fall color and delicious syrup have always given the trees iconic status, but now, like the bears, they're objects of sympathy. As with the bears, their habitat is shrinking as winters grow warmer.
This particular story about sugar maples begins with the bad migraines Thomas Jefferson was having the spring of 1791. A bit of a leap, but stick with me.
That spring, Jefferson was working in Philadelphia, then our capital, as secretary of state in the Washington administration.
Jefferson didn't like the city—crowded, noisy, dirty—and he didn't much like the job either. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was getting on his nerves. Noise plus Hamilton may have actually caused the migraines. Or the migraines, on top of the other factors, might have tipped the scale, making Jefferson desperate for a vacation.
In any case, Jefferson and his fellow Virginian James Madison, then a member of Congress, decided to up and travel north for a month—to Vermont and back.
There we begin to see the maple connection. In a charming and informative article about this Jefferson-Madison pre-presidency spring break, historian Willard Sterne Randall wrote in American Heritage magazine that Jefferson "had come to think of the new state as the frontier ideal, a sort of unspoiled Virginia without slavery or entrenched tidewater aristocrats."
Jefferson hoped that the yeoman farmers of that unspoiled state could save the nation from depending on sugar grown in the British Caribbean using slave labor. The solution? Maple sugar.
Jefferson was not exactly without sin in the matter of slavery, but he particularly liked the idea that maple sugar would be produced by free citizens living on family farms. Toward the end of his visit, the future president concluded a stirring speech in Bennington by saying, "Attention to our sugar orchards is essentially necessary to secure the independence of our country."
The year before his Vermont trip, Jefferson, never averse to horticultural experimentation, asked his son-in-law to plant some maples to create his own sugar orchard at Monticello. Historian Randall writes that the trees failed to thrive because they were planted in the wrong spot.
Actually, the wrong spot was Virginia itself, where the winters are too short. Sugar maples evolved to do well in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. Jugs of syrup with Monticello on the label were never to be.
Some 200 years after Jefferson's attempt, Burlington feels more like Charlottesville than it used to, and more and more maple syrup labels say "Made in Canada."