Maple Sugar Season: Tree-Following, March 2016
In my part of the world, maple (Acer) trees are particularly prized as the source of maple syrup. Recently, a story on the evening news featured the Governor’s ceremonial tapping of a maple tree outside the State House. This process involves drilling a hole in the trunk of the tree and then putting in a tap and attaching some kind of container to collect the sap that flows out of the tree through the tap.
All over my neighborhood, trees are wearing the latest in maple syrup fashion. It seems fitting that the old, venerable trees growing at the edge of a nearby cemetery are sporting classic metal containers for collecting their sap. It is more typical these days to see plastic pails, either hanging on the trunk of the tree or sitting on the ground attached to plastic tubing that is inserted in the tree. (Note that tubing from several taps can be collected in the same pail.)
The preferred trees for maple syrup production are sugar maples (Acer saccharum); these produce the greatest amount of sweet maple sap. But red maples (Acer rubrum) like mine also produce sweet sap.
What is the source of this precious spring product? In autumn, as maple trees stop growing and go into dormancy, they store starches in their sapwood. As days get warmer and the tree temperature begins to rise in late winter and early spring, these starches are converted to sugars which pass into the sap of the tree. At the same time, cold overnight temperatures create pressures that cause water from the soil to flow into the roots of the tree, increasing the production of sap. The ideal conditions for the flow of sweet sap combine warm, sunny days with freezing nights. According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s bulletin on making maple syrup, each tap hole typically produces 5-15 gallons of sap (although, under the most favorable conditions, a tap hole can produce as much as 80 gallons in a single season). This might seem like a lot until you realize that the process of producing maple syrup from that sap involves evaporating the liquid to concentrate the sugars. It takes 10 gallons of sap to produce a single quart of finished syrup!
I will confess to having a bit of a maple syrup addiction. During the winter months, I eat hot cereal for breakfast, and each day I garnish my cereal with one tablespoon of maple syrup. This means that I will go through 1.5-2 quarts of syrup in an average winter. Despite my heavy use of this precious product, I have never tapped my red maple tree to collect sap and make my own syrup. I prefer instead to support the local farm economy by purchasing my yearly supply.
Each March, Maine maple syrup producers celebrate the spring bounty on Maine Maple Sunday. This is always held on the fourth Sunday of the month. On that date, farmers open their sugarhouses (the out-buildings where evaporators convert sap into syrup) to the public and make lots of delicious maple sugar products available to them.