Food Foraging: Maple Syrup, Prickly Lettuce, and Calamus

This installment of an ongoing food foraging series focuses on maple syrup, prickly lettuce, and calamus, with additional references to dandelion crowns, watercress, and soybeans.

| March/April 1972

People like me dedicated to food foraging know the month of March in Wisconsin can be a beauty or a beast. It can be a time for picking tender greens from the sunny side of field knolls or it can be a time for spending the best part of the day shoveling through deep snow. One thing is practically certain, however: March is the time for sap to run in the maple trees.

Making Maple Syrup

The equipment required for turning this sap into maple syrup — good eatin' anytime — is very simple. All we really need is a brace and bit, a few elderberry stems, a whittling or paring knife, some lightweight pails and a few nails.

Our bit should drill a hole about 1/2-inch in diameter and the pails should each hold at least two gallons. Nails 10 d or larger will suffice for hanging the buckets on the maple trees and the elderberry stems (for spiles) should be green wood and not so much larger than the bit that they can't be quickly shaved to fit the holes we drill. We'll need a fire for boiling off the sap, of course, and I use the barrel stove in my garage for this purpose.

There's a little trick to making sap spiles out of elderberry stems, and although I covered the technique elsewhere I'll outline it again here.

First, find a patch of elderberries (Sambucus Canadensis) — maybe the same patch you harvested berries or blossoms from last year—and saw off enough stems (1/2 inch or larger in diameter) to allow four inches of length for each spile. Trim off the branches, saw the stems into four inch lengths, and force the white center out of each piece. This center is a soft pithy material and it can be pushed out with the right sized rod. It can also be burned out.

Use a wire about the same size as a coat hanger and heated red-hot to burn the soft core from a spile by picking up the four-inch length of stem and inserting the hot wire — gingerly — into one end. Smoke will rise and you'll feel little resistance as you push the wire completely through the spile. If it pushes hard, remove the wire, re-heat it, and try again.

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