It was 20 F when we out to tap the maple trees this year, but the wind wasn’t blowing and the snow didn’t start falling until we were wrapping up. When it warms up in a few weeks, it will be too late-the sap will already be flowing.
We primarily set taps in silver maple trees. All of the native maples, including black, sugar, silver, and box elder, produce sap that can be boiled down into maple syrup. We just happen to have a large amount of floodplain, and a corresponding large amount of silver maple trees.
We also tap, to a lesser extent, box elders and sugar maples in the uplands. What difference does it make? Silver maple sap typically has between 1.5%-1.75% sugar in it. Black or sugar maple sap typically has between 2-3% sugar. And box elder sap has 1% sugar.To make syrup, we need to boil the box elder sap twice as long as the the sugar maple sap, and the longer it boils, the darker and richer the caramelization. It boils a long time, because we have to take the sugar concentrations from 1.5% sugar (sap) to 66% sugar (maple syrup).
Maple syrup is the first crop I harvest every year, and tapping the trees for it is my own personal act of faith that spring is about to emerge, in the form of sweet flowing sap from the maple trees.
As the maple syruping season winds down, Indian Creek Nature Center is sharing the first harvest of the year with the community this weekend. The daytime temperatures have been unseasonably warm, in the 60’s and 70’s, and the night time temperatures have also been unseasonably warm, in the high 30’s and mid 40’s. Without the nights getting below freezing, the trees have produced a modest 280 gallons of sap-only enough to make about 6 gallons of syrup.
If you only have one or two trees to tap or lack a good thermometer, consider drinking the sap or using it to make soups and stews. It has great flavor and is rich in minerals.
While the temperatures will likely get cold again, the silver maple trees are already budding out, signaling that the sugars (=good syrup) are changing to starches (=bad syrup). Many of the trees have simply stopped producing sap altogether.
Another sign that the seasons are shifting:
The syruping is ending, but the next wild edible to emerge-stinging nettle-is just beginning to poke through the softening ground.
As spring progresses, keep an eye on the maples. Their flowers in March attract bees, and their sap attracts other things all year long.
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A great way to be in nature this time of year is maple syruping.
When winter is still firmly entrenched but the change in the birdsong indicates spring must be playing hide and seek just under the snow, we take our power drills, our 7/16″ drillbits, our sapsacks and spiles, and head into the sugarbush.
All maple trees, including the sugar maple and the box elder, have opposite branches. Its one good indicator that the tree is a maple tree–the only other large tree in this area that has opposite branches is the ash tree.
If you don’t have a maple tree, plant one! Maples grow quickly, which will allow you–or someone who comes after you–to enjoy harvesting the sap, boiling it into syrup, and living directly off the land.
Being in the Sugarbush is a great way to see who else is spending time in the woods and what they are eating. As soon as it warms up a bit and the sap starts running, we’ll be back every warm day over the next five weeks to gather it. The repeated trips to the forest over the next five weeks will give us opportunities to explore the gradual shift into spring, as well as collect gallons of sweet sap. Visit www.indiancreeknaturecenter.org to learn more about syruping.