How to Tap Trees: Birch, Walnut, and Sycamore

Want to branch out from maple? Use this guide to decide which trees to tap and learn about making birch syrup, making walnut syrup, and making sycamore syrup.

  • Want to branch out from maple? Make syrup from birch, walnut, and sycamore trees.
    Photo by istock/showcake
  • Drill at a 15-degree, upward angle to allow sap to flow more easily.
    Photo by Brett McLeod
  • Before inserting taps, sterilize the taps and drill bit by boiling them in water.
    Photo by Brett McLeod
  • Each stem of this paper birch tree is capable of supporting one tap.
    Photo by Brett McLeod
  • A tubing system is an alternative to buckets.
    Photo by Brett McLeod
  • Early-season maple, mid-season black walnut, and late-season birch syrup vary in color.
    Photo by Brett McLeod
  • Birch syrup has less sugar than maple, but try it in a sauce or demi-glace on salmon.
    Photo by istock/larik_malasha
  • Birch syrup isn't as sweet as maple, but try it in a sweet dessert such as caramel custard.
    Photo by Tracey Kusiewicz and Christine Couvelier for The Canadian Birch Company

Perhaps the greatest disappointment when first exploring my woodlot was the realization that not a single sugar maple tree exists on the entire homestead. While I’m fortunate enough to have a neighbor who allows me to tap his sugar maple trees, I found myself looking for other opportunities to produce more food from the forest. I began to explore making birch syrup, which I first encountered when I lived in Southeast Alaska. After birch syrup, I quickly discovered an entire world of saps and syrups derived from more than 50 tree species around the world.

Sweet or Savory?

As you explore syrups, you’ll see that they’re subject to just as much enthusiasm as craft beer, with styles varying by region and maker. You’ll also find that while we use the term “syrup” to describe any tree sap that’s condensed, not all syrups are sweet. Birch syrup, for example, has a savory and almost spicy flavor, well-suited for use as a demi-glace over wild game or for a salad dressing. Walnut, however, has a sweet, nutty taste, and the flavor becomes stronger later in the tapping season. The first run of sycamore syrup is usually very light, resembling honey in both appearance and taste. Late-season sycamore syrup has a distinct butterscotch flavor.

How to Tap Trees: Choosing What to Tap

A walk through your backyard or woodlot will give you a good idea of your sugaring possibilities and limitations. While paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is the most commonly tapped birch, all birches in the Betula genus will work. On my property, I happen to have mostly gray birch (Betula populifolia), which is small and short-lived but makes wonderful syrup.

If you’re in the Midwest, Northeast, or Southeast, chances are good that you have walnut (Juglans spp.) or sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) trees nearby. Regardless of the species you choose, realize that making syrup requires a significant time investment. To get just one gallon of syrup, you’ll have to process about 40 gallons of sugar maple or walnut sap, or as many as 100 gallons of birch or sycamore sap!

Also, be mindful that tapping creates a wound that may harm the tree and render it less valuable for other purposes, such as lumber production. This is particularly true for walnut because it’s a high-value wood. You could tap only those trees that have poor form and aren’t likely to be used for lumber. Another approach is to tap a few dedicated sap trees, knowing they won’t yield commercial lumber but will make great syrup.

How many taps can you put into a tree without hurting it? Relatively little research has addressed this question for non-maple species, but commercial producers have erred on the side of caution. Most recommend a minimum 8-inch diameter tap at 41⁄2 feet above the ground and just a single tap for all but the largest trees. An exception would be birch trees, such as gray birch, which are naturally small and short-lived. My tap for these trees may be as small as 5 inches in diameter, and then I’ll cut the stem under a coppice regeneration system

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