I’ve always had a craving for sweet foods, especially as a kid. I also liked to climb trees; still do. I remember when the two cravings came together one day in my backyard near New Paltz, N.Y. My brother and I were climbing a tree. We didn’t know what type of tree it was, but it was high enough with branches that served as good scaffolding to shimmy around in. I remember noticing an oozing, clear substance trickling down the bark of the trunk and limbs. “Hey, let’s taste it,” I thought. So I did, and it was sweet. Soon the tree found both my brother and I scurrying for sap like two squirrels raiding a bird feeder. I was happy as a tree sloth: I had something sweet to eat, while some branches to climb, too.
The substance was maple sap. I confirmed the tree species a few years ago when I revisited my old backyard. My family moved away to nearby Gardiner, but I never forgot those trees. I asked the landowner living there for permission to walk about. Sure enough, there were two large sugar maples where I had climbed almost twenty-five years ago! I saw its lower branch reach out into the yard – like it did then – instigating me to let go and revisit a slice of childhood. I thought better; it wasn’t my place any more.
Sugar maple is not the only tree that produces abundant sap in late winter and early spring. Sycamore; black walnut; paper, black, and yellow birch trees; and all maples trees can be tapped for their sap.
However, some are sweeter than others. For instance, birch trees seem to produce more sap than any other tree. They’ll fill up a 5-gallon bucket in one day. However, it’s about 99 percent water, or 1 percent sugar. That means it’ll take about 85 gallons of birch sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup. After burning a lot of firewood, it boils down to a molasses flavor that some enjoy, and others not so much. Alaska produces the most birch syrup, but maple is not on their forest dessert menu.
I tasted black walnut recently at the New York Maple Conference – and it’s good. However, its syrup contains a lot of pectin and is difficult to filter. In addition, the Catskills and mid-Hudson Valley are not as abundant in black walnut as they are in maple. What about sycamore? There aren’t many of them, and they are mostly found growing in floodplains near streams and rivers.
Maple is abundant – relatively speaking – and gives ample sap and sugar content. You can tap any of them; even Norway maple (Acer platanoides), according Steve Childs from Cornell Maple Research Program and Extension. Commercial producers typically tap sugar (Acer saccharum) and red maple (Acer rubrum). Quality syrup can be made by either of the two. It was thought that red maple had lower sugar contents, made darker syrup, and had a “buddier” sap because its buds break dormancy earlier than sugar maples.
However, I am hearing from Steve Childs and others that there is no substantial evidence of this. I believe them, since I once tapped a red, and its sugar was adequate and sap plentiful. Sugar maples have lighter gray bark and brown buds, while reds have shaggier bark (except when they’re young and growing fast) and large red buds. Sugar maple is pickier about where it likes to grow. It prefers well-drained soils, while red maple can tolerate both poorly drained soil and dry ridgetops.
The more sunlight your trees received last summer, the healthier and sweeter their sap will be. Normally, this type of discussion would naturally flow into a step-by-step process on backyard sugaring. But, to be honest, it’s really too late to begin sugaring. Maple sugaring is governed by three things: Last year’s sunlight, this year’s temperature, and your motivation. Sap flow cannot occur without freezing nights and warm days. The end of the 10-day forecast in our area has lows that are creeping up above freezing spelling the end of the sweet season, and the beginning of the growing season. The last criterion begins now – your motivation. Let’s talk about that.
You’ll need between 1/2 cord to 1 cord of wood to make five gallons of maple syrup. You could scramble and get things together and make something good, but maple sugaring demands patience and planning ahead. First, find some trees. If you don’t have sugar or red maple nearby, you’re out of luck. Second, get some sapwood a year ahead. Cut it, split it, and cover only the top so the ends can dry. You can either buy firewood ahead of time or cut it yourself. The problem with buying firewood for sapwood is you no longer have control over species. The best woods for boiling sap are least preferred for firewood. A fire that burns hot, fast, and leaves few coals is preferred for boiling sap. Good tree species include white pine, aspen, red maple, white ash, hemlock, and sassafras. The wood will burn even hotter if it’s split smaller too.
Any tree species that are competing for sunlight with your potential sugarmakers are candidates for sapwood. If you have some sugar or red maple trees nearby to tap, you can “kill two birds with one stone.” In this way, you can feed the boiler while letting in more sunlight to grow higher sugar contents come spring. Like most crops, more sunlight is better. The trees I tap are open grown. Typically maple trees are about 2 percent sugar content (42 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup). The trees I tap receive plenty of sunlight and are often 2.5 percent (33 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup). This year, they were a whopping 3 percent (27.6 to 1); though that’s unusual.
Lastly, you’ll need an evaporator – a pan used to evaporate away the water from the sap – and something to gather the sap in: buckets or tubing. Stainless steel is the way to go for an evaporator. Bake pans are readily accessible for backyard use, while gallon plastic water jugs for hanging “buckets” are an inexpensive option. Taps or spiles used to make the tap-hole can be purchased from any maple supplier. You can make your own from staghorn sumac if you’re super motivated as well.
As the date approaches, more details on the process will follow. However, as things warm up, start planning for next spring. Get your wood in order. On a backyard scale, it’s not worth burning any other fuel. Propane is too expensive; you might as well buy the stuff. Choose your trees. The bigger their crown (or foliage) is, the better. Lastly, think about what and where you’ll boil this stuff. Don’t do it inside!
Remember, there’s going to be about forty gallons or so of water evaporating away. If you must tap this year, Catskill Forest Association has a small booklet that describes backyard sugaring step-by-step. Hey, you can always just tap one tree and use its sap for tea, coffee, or a slightly sweet and tasty beverage. On a good day, one gushing tap can produce over two gallons of sap.
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