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Monday, February 20, 2017





Monday, 8:15 AM.  42 degrees F at the ferry dock and on the back porch, a relatively rare occurrence. Wind variable and calm, skies cloudy and humidity 79%  The barometer has begun to fall, now at 29.95".  The much predicted rain has not arrived and may not, from the looks of things.  The forecast calls for warm temperatures into the low 50's through Tuesday, then dropping back into the twenties, with a wintry mix of weather.  Old man winter is stubborn, but each mild day is one day less of him.
  The sap is flowing in the sugar maples, and it is time for "maple sugarin'" once again. This is an early sap flow, but upcoming cold weather will probably shut it off again.  Flow can start and stop anytime, according to weather conditions, from mid February through mid April.  Sap flow typically stops completely when trees bud out.
   I have enjoyed helping friends Andy and Judy Larsen with sugaring for a number of years, on their property out on Hwy. K, but they no longer can do the work. My maple sugaring days are pretty much over as well, as old friends pass away or are no longer able to participate, and as I have issues of my own that preclude tromping through heavy snow or mud, and carrying buckets of sap.  As they say, "Life happens." But, to bring Almanac readers up to date:
   Sap flows upwards from the roots of maple trees (sap is collected mainly from sugar maples, Acer sacharum, but also flows similarly in red maples, Acer rubrum, and some other maple species) much earlier than other tree species, and is uncharacteristically sweet.  Sap also flows early in birch trees, Betula species, which are also sometimes tapped for their sap (Scandinavians make a beer from birch sap). For a very understandable explanation of the technicalities of sugar maple and similar sap flow, see The Botanist In The Kitchen post of March 16, 2013.  Search this blog for further information and photos as well.
   There are a number of theories concerning maple sap flow, but the process is complicated and none of the theories seem to be foolproof.  In any case, sap flows best when warm, sunny days follow cold nights.  Warm nights usually stop the flow of sap.  Some seasons are much better than others, and maple sugaring is often a hit-or-miss proposition.  Some seasons are very productive of sap, and others are hardly worth the trouble.
   The trees are tapped and a spile, a spigot that the sap flows from, and the bucket or bag is hung from, is inserted into the tree.  Nowadays the holes for the spiles are often drilled with a cordless drill, but an old fashioned, hand-turned carpenters brace and bit works about as well.  The drilled hole is shallow, just deep enough to hold the spile in place, since the sap flows in the xylem conductive tissues just under the inner bark of the tree.  The shallow wound heals easily during the growing season and does no harm to the tree, nor does the collection of sap itself.
   The sugars in maple sap are very dilute, and it takes about forty gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup, or ten gallons to make a quart.  Traditionally, sap is boiled down over a wood fire, or on a wood stove, and it takes a lot of split and seasoned hardwood to make syrup.  The whole process is very labor intensive and laborious, although commercial operations have devised a lot of labor saving devices, and sap can be boiled over any heat source. Some big commercial operations collect flowing sap from trees directly to the boiling pot with tubing and suction pump, and tap hundreds of trees.
   American Indians collected sap and boiled it down to sugar long before the arrival of Europeans in North America, collecting sap by cutting a "v" in the tree bark and using birch bark buckets.  It was an important part of their lifestyle and diet and remains so in our Ojibway region, although they now use modern tools and methods.
   On balance, maple sugaring is an activity best thought of as something one does to productively pass the time from late winter until spring finally arrives.  But the product, maple syrup, is the very best and uniquely flavored condiment for pancakes, ice cream and other treats.  And the sugar shack, where the syrup is made, is traditionally a fun place to be with friends and relatives, where jokes are abundant and laughter and  good will abounds.
  The plastic sap collection bags pictured above are beginning to take the place of the metal or plastic buckets often used.  All things considered, the bags are easier to handle, do not collect insects, are not as likely to spill during the collection process, and are a lot easier to store during the off season.
   The above photo of collection bags were taken yesterday at Bayfield's Old Courthouse (now Park Service headquarters), which has a lot of good sized maple trees. The sap collection is part of a Bayfield school project.
   For some late winter fun, find a sugarbush to volunteer to work at, or tap a few sugar maple trees yourself; it's a great way to connect with people and with nature.
    It's maple sugarin' time again!

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