A Sappy Subject

Given that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I figured now was the best time to broach a very sappy subject.

That’s right. Tree tapping.

How to sweeten foods in a post-industrial society has always been one of my greatest concerns. Granted the modern American diet contains way more sugar than is healthy for any of us (often derived from corn and hidden with fancy scientific names), so we could all stand to eat less of the sweet stuff. But life without sugar entirely? Sugar cane doesn’t grown in my backyard. Maybe I could grow and process sugar beets. Given my suspected allergy to bee stings, keeping a hive doesn’t seem likely. But tapping trees once a year and then boiling down the sap? I think I could manage that. And there are many kinds of trees that produce sap.

Maple (Acer spp.)  Sugar maple (A. saccharum var. saccharumis) has the sweetest sap of all trees, and is the traditional source for “maple syrup.” But you can tap any maple, even the red maple (A. rubrum) which seems to be all I can find nearby. Depending on the weather, the tapping season can last up to six weeks, and starts roughly in mid-February in the Mid-Atlantic. Of course the weather has been so crazy this year, who know what to expect? For sugar maples, the ratio of sap to syrup is 40 to 1, i.e., forty gallons of sap will produce one gallon of syrup although individual trees and weather conditions play a factor here as well.

Red maple in the fall
Red maple in the fall. Photo by PrathSnap on Pexels.com

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). I had always thought of sycamore as a “survival” tapping tree. If you were lost in the woods but had a spile, you could get drinkable fluid from a sycamore and thus avoid dehydration. Apparently it can be used for syrup as well! According to this article, ten gallons of sap can produce one quart of syrup. Which if I am converting units correctly, is about the same ratio as maples (40 to 1).

Sweet Birch (Betula lenta). These trees produce much more sap than maples, but their sap is less sweet. They also have a shorter season which tends to start just as the maple season is ending. Meaning you move your tapping equipment from one set of trees to the next! Given how much sap you would need to make syrup from sweet birch – this article says it takes over 100 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup! – I would probably opt to use the sap for birch beer instead.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra). Unlike maple trees, black walnut sap runs throughout the autumn, winter and spring. However the best time, in terms for both flavor and flow, appears to be in late winter, same as for maples. A black walnut tree produces a lot less sap than other types of tree, so it might not be worth the effort unless you have a lot of trees to tap!

Hickories (Carya spp.) can be tapped as well, although “hickory syrup” apparently is actually made by boiling the bark in water to extract the flavor.

A metal spile for tapping trees
A metal spile for tapping trees

I’ll be honest, I don’t understand the timing on tapping. It’s some voodoo involving daytime highs versus overnight lows, and the amount of budding on the tree as the sap begins to run. This is one of those times when it’s helpful to have a group of more experienced folk to turn to (or to stalk their social media accounts). And yes, I use the same method to know when to start hunting for morels (Morchella spp.)!

I only have one tree close enough to tap – a red maple, alas – but I decided to give it a shot anyway. The location is very convenient, in my front yard. The tree needs to be checked daily so the sap can be emptied out of the bucket. Or in my case, the upcycled plastic gallon jug.

Before you tap a tree, ensure the tree is at least 10″ in diameter. For those of us who have forgotten highschool math, you can measure the circumference of the tree and then divide by Pi (3.14-ish) to get the diameter. (Or cheat and use a circumference calculator on the internet.)

Checking the Size of a Maple Tree Prior to Tapping
Checking the Size of a Maple Tree Prior to Tapping

This maple has a circumference of 41″, which means a diameter of about 13″, so it can support a single tap. Trees over 20″ in diameter can have two taps at a time.

Tapping can continue until the leaves start budding out and temperatures consistently stay above freezing. At that point the sap slows and the flavor becomes unpleasant.

Red Maple Leaf Buds
Red Maple Leaf Buds

Sap should be kept refrigerated until enough has gathered to bother boiling. Most sources suggest at least 10 gallons. The boiling should be done outside, because of the amount of steam that will be cooked off. If I start tapping now, and the season lasts six weeks, that will mean late March, when it’s no longer as cold to stand around outside minding boiling sap.

Assuming I end up with any sap! Even though folks near me are also tapping trees right now, nothing came out of my tap at all. I guess we will find out.

Have you tried tapping trees, maple or otherwise, for sap? What other wild forage are you finding this time of year?

One comment

  1. See my blog post from today (π day – 3/14/2022). I am tapping a Norway Maple. I boil about 2 liters at a time (indoors, on a stove) for about 50ml of syrup every day or two when the sap is running – we just came through a cold week with no run. I baked a pie using it for sweetener.

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