A Sweet Season Flows: How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Syrup on a Wood-Burning Stove

| 2/12/2016 12:17:00 PM

In the late winter months, when nighttime and daytime temperatures oscillate from deep-freezing to above-freezing, an imperceptible shift begins to take place in the trees around us. This huge variation in temperature is a signal that spring is coming, and in preparation for leaf growth, sap begins to rise up within the tree. Like a hydraulic pulse pumping within the tree, this sap—a watery fluid rich with nutrients and sugars—ascends from roots to branches, marking the beginning of a very sweet season.

Though sap flow occurs in a wide variety of trees, there is one variety that produces a sap sweeter than them all: The Sugar Maple. For a six-week window of time before the break of spring, the sugar maple flows. The sap can be tapped, and then boiled down to make golden, luscious homemade maple syrup.  

Maple syrup made from sugar and red maple trees. Photo courtesy of Waterfall Farm

A Shifting Season

The maple-tapping season as a whole is subject to location and has different parameters depending on your location, changing the further north you travel, notes Wheeler Munroe, who has been tapping maple trees on her family farm in Ashe County, North Carolina, since 2012. “Around here, in the South,” continues Munroe, “we look at when the maple trees are going to break bud and bloom. That first little pop of bud-break marks the end of our sap season, because the chemistry of the sap changes. So you estimate when the bud-break is going to be, and then you back up 6 weeks, and that's when you tap your trees.”

On Waterfall Farm, where she works with her father, Doug Munroe, the tapping season begins on the first of February and runs through through mid March, when the trees begin to bud. But it’s a shifting season, once that tracks the path to spring. “For my brother and his wife who produce maple syrup in New York state,” says Munroe, “they're making their first syrup as we're making our last.”

Tapping for All

“Tapping a maple tree is something that anyone can do,” says Natalie Bogwalker, a tree-tapping hobbyist and the founder of Wild Abundance and the Firefly Gathering. “And,” she adds, “it’s especially magical for children.”

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