March 1, 2020
With three weeks to the spring equinox, late winter days are typically just above freezing and the nights a few degrees below freezing. Ground water is absorbed by trees, their stored starch is converted to sugar and the pressure inside the trunks of Sugar Maples increases. This is the ideal time to tap maples for their sweet sap.
This age-old tradition dates back thousands of years when aboriginal communities would temporarily move to sites of mature maple trees to harvest the sap and boil it down into their annual supply of sugar.
Europeans who settled here, quickly picked up on the harvesting of sugar from trees and adapted the methods of tapping and evaporation with the equipment the local blacksmith was able to manufacture for them.
Though some other deciduous trees can also be tapped for their sugar, the favoured tree is the Sugar Maple. It tends to grow in well-drained areas, typically on drumlins left here by glaciers that deposited mounds of rock, sand, and gravel into the oblong hills scattered across our region. As this part of North America still has the perfect weather conditions and topography, we are privileged to be able to continue this ancient annual tradition.
In 1954, after my family had just gone through their first winter on the farm, they too tapped a stand of Maple trees in our mixed forest. They set up an evaporator pan on a stone arch built into a small knoll in the “Maple Woods”. This venture lasted for only two seasons. There was a lot of commitment involved and there was no building to provide protection from the elements during the long evaporation process. Snow, rain, things falling from the trees or critters jumping in from the forest floor made the whole project frustrating and unfeasible. You need a lot of fire wood, patience and time to turn forty buckets of sap into one bucket of syrup.
Fifty years later, with most of the family back in the area, we pooled our resources and time to buy equipment and build a small shack on the site of the original arch. It would be a reminder of the family’s first years on the farm and a place where our children and grandchildren could learn this ancient process.
My mother arranged for old sheet metal from an acquaintance and purchased a small evaporator pan perfect for about one hundred taps. Everyone contributed. This cooperation was sweeter than the syrup we shared at the end of the season.
In our household, the major sources of sugar are maple syrup and honey. Both can be produced locally and fit in well with a sustainable life style. I have tried raising bees but have been frustrated with the many new diseases and parasites. Many years ago, when I was in my late teens, I captured a swarm of bees and was able to keep them and harvest honey without issues. Since then, the planet has become a small place and there seems to be a constant flow of new challenges imported from around the world.
So far, we haven’t had any major issues with the maple trees on the farm. However, the introduced Asian Long-horned beetle prefers Maples and could wreak havoc in a Sugar Bush.
Though a stand of just Sugar Maples makes it possible to maximize syrup production, a mixed forest makes more sense to ensure stability especially when an invasion of non-native insects can wipe out a whole stand of Maples in a relatively short time. Biodiversity is important everywhere, not only in our forests but also in our yards. It allows for balance. And even if the new pests do find and attack a given tree, there will always be other species who will hold their ground until natural controls develop and the affected species can make a comeback.
The changing climate may be an even greater threat to future maple syrup production. You need very specific weather conditions of alternating freezing and thawing for the sap to flow. If temperatures stay above freezing day and night, the sap will not run. It is a reminder that we should never take anything for granted.
If you are interested in taking on a small syrup making project, this would be the time of the year. You only have four to six weeks after drilling tap holes before you lose that daily freezing, thawing cycle that is crucial for collecting sap. Even if weather conditions ideal for sap collection persist after the four to six weeks, the tap holes will dry up as the trees start the healing process and the buds start to swell with the arrival of a new growing season.
What you need is a group of maple trees that are at least 25 cm in diameter, a drill, spiles and buckets. The greatest challenge is boiling down the sap. Allowing the sap to freeze and removing the ice helps to concentrate sugars and can help shorten the evaporation process, but you will still need to boil down the sap to concentrate and caramelize the sugars. For every 40 litres of sap collected, you have to remove about 39 litres of water. A flat pan is the most efficient for small projects.
It takes close to 40 years for a maple to reach a size big enough to safely put in one tap. A great gift to our descendants is to plant a stand of maples alongside other tree species and hope that new pests and a changing climate won’t rob our children and grandchildren of this unique late winter/early spring activity.