By Cindy Ross
It’s 10:30 AM in early March and the earth is beginning to warm up. At this time of the year, it means the maple sap has begun to rise. There’s something different about a morning when the sap is going to flow. The air feels different, softer. The birds sing sweeter.
I tramp through the snow, looking for the white plastic milk jugs that are attached to our maple trees. Clear liquid- sap, or the life-blood of these maple trees, slowly runs into the containers. This process occurs all by itself, in every single tree in the forest. It’s something the normal person doesn’t think about yet it works all on its own. Like so many things in nature, it’s a miracle.
I aim for the trees with my bucket, the ones which are giving, and head right to them to unload their stash. I disconnect the white milk jugs from their hooks on the trees and turn them upside down in the 5-gallon bucket that I carry with me to each tree. They chug, chug, chug and splash as they empty and then I move on to the next tree. I touch my tongue to the clear liquid and can actually taste its sugar content before any boiling takes place. When my bucket is filled, I haul it over to my husband’s homemade barrel stove, made especially for boiling down sap.
Each tree can support 1- 2 taps without ever hurting it or robbing what the tree needs for its own health. You determine how many taps a tree can support by examining the crown…if it “carries a good top” and looks healthy. Then the taps get inserted in the sunny side of the tree. When the weather is perfect for sugaring and the sap is running, a good gallon will flow out of each tree. Trees found along hedgerows and roads get even more sun than maples found in the forest.
This is our third year in our little cottage industry that keeps just my family in maple syrup supply all year. We tap about 24 trees but here in Schuylkill and Berks County, we have only red maples. Sugar maples, aptly named, have higher sugar content. It takes 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. It takes 60 gallons of red maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. My husband Todd and I make an average of two gallons of maple syrup every spring. Is it worth it? You bet it is. We do it for the fun and because we can.
There’s a lot of talk in our house these days about movement- up and down movement. We watch the weather charts like a hawk, examining highs and lows for the next week. We are trying to anticipate and predict what the sap in our maple trees will be doing in the very near future. This directly depends on how the temperate rises and falls every night and day. The two are in direct correlation with each other. At this time of year, early spring, there is major movement in the living trees outside our door.
Rising sap, or tree hydraulics, is really water and nutrients in the ground being sucked up, pulled by the tree-like millions of tiny straws. The flow occurs because of tension, which results because the tree’s liquid content up top evaporated, which was powered by sunlight. The sap rising in a tree in the spring is similar to how a paper towel absorbs water and carries it upward- an osmosis moving water from cell to cell. Conditions must be perfect for it to occur- cold soil, cool nights and warm days. The cool nights promote the conversion of starch molecules to sugar, while warm, sunny days allow water to flow from the soil into the stem. If temps drop well below freezing at night, the water travels back down the tree to be stored safely in the ground. If temps warm up the next day, the sap rises and flows back up again. Sooner or later, though, when the nights stay warm for a long period of time, and the ground warms up, the sap run will be over. The containers hanging on the sides of the trees will get very little fluid in them and it is an unappetizing brown color. Then the maple syrup maker pulls the taps.
Monitoring the temperature and collecting sap and boiling it to make syrup has been a very welcome distraction as of late. While I am collecting, I don’t dwell on students being shot or the seemingly dozens of other issues happening in our country right now that could keep you awake at night or at least create a permanent frown on your face, if not flowing tears. I focus on the sap and it feels good to be walking the damp wet woods, our playful goats at my side snacking on the fallen leaves. I hear the Canada geese fly overhead- they are moving too.
The flow is occurring very early this year, just as the Canada geese are moving through early and the snow geese at Middlecreek Wildlife Mangement Area have arrived very early too. My friend, Hop May, a commercial maple syrup producer in upstate PA, said to enjoy collecting sap and making syrup now. Sudden spring warming, which is happening more frequently as climate change takes hold, reduces sap yields. With climate change on the move, these parts of PA will not forever enjoy syrup production. Our soil will grow too warm for the starch to sugar conversion.
There’s so much artificial stuff out there. When you make maple syrup, all you do is take out the water. Most kids are amazed when they learn that Mrs. Butterworth’s has absolutely no maple syrup in it! These days, we could all use a little more magic in our lives and maple syruping does the trick.
March is Maple Sugar Month in Pennsylvania. Berks County Parks and Recreation offered maple sugaring demonstrations at various park locations. If you weren't able to attend this year's events, luckily, the sap runs annually.