One of my favorite things to do this time of the year is to tap maple trees. Now in order for the sap to run, you need a combination of temperatures which dip below freezing at night while rising above freezing during the day. This temperature fluctuation causes the sap to run up the tree in the morning and to run down at night, during both of which times it will drip through a special tap placed into a hole drilled in the trunk.
You see, as soon as it warms up, the up-till-now dormant tree decides that it’s now spring and hence it’s time to come out of hibernation and to resume growing, and the sap, which is essentially the tree’s blood, begins to flow up from the roots to the branches. The freezing nights, however, make it think that it’s still winter, and the juices run back down as the tree goes back to dormancy, in a way. For that reason March, with its transitional weather, is good for this. While you can tap both soft and hard maples (also known as sugar maples), the sap of the sugar maples is higher in sugar content.
Although we don’t have nearly enough maples to collect enough sap to boil syrup, since the conversion ration is 40 to 1 (that’s right, you need forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup), last year we got into collecting sap for drinking. Since we don’t have any woods, we only have four maple trees on our farm – two hard and two soft maples, all planted around our house, and it’s real fun to peek into the buckets in the late morning to see how much sap has collected. It’s a great thing to do with kids, too, and (and I am going to make it sound really corny now) it is a great way for them to interact with the natural world.
As to the gustatory and nutritional benefits of the maple sap, not only does it have a delicate, subtle, sweet flavor, it is also high in all kinds of good nutrients. For that reason we drink it pretty much non-stop as long as it runs.
But, more than anything else, to me, along with the early (but abundant) birdsong of cardinals and chickadees and juncos who begin to sing a couple of weeks before even the first robins show up (though we’ll be seeing them any day now) – maple tapping is one of those special seasonal rituals that mark the border between winter and spring. We tapped our trees today, and if you have sugar maples on your lot, I recommend that you do too.
You start with the taps, available at any hardware store around here this time a year for under three bucks. This one was banged up last year when we were taking it out of the tree, but it is still good to use.
Note of caution: Although I’ve never experienced this, I read that sometimes tap holes can become contaminated with last year’s bacteria, which may have survived on the taps while they were in storage, and cease to flow even while the weather is right. Apparently you can prevent this by boiling your taps first for about 20 minutes to sterilize them. So far, we never have.
You start by drilling a hole in a tree (a tree would take probably no more than two taps) using an electric drill with a bore capable of making large enough hole for the tap to fit in (I didn’t really have to tell you this last part, did I).
The hole should be about 2 inches deep – or the length of the rear end of the tap that goes into the tree. The hole on the bottom is fresh, while the round hole right above it is from last year. See how nicely it healed up?
You then place the tap into the hole and tap it gently in place with a hammer, striking the upper part.
You obviously don’t need any special buckets – I just used clean 5-gallon buckets with a lid in which I cut a whole. And, what a coincidence! The taps are equipped with a hook from which to hang a bucket.
The sap then drips nicely into the bucket through the hole in the top.
See? It’s running!!!!!!!! Spring is here!
Now we are at the very beginning of the season, so this is pretty much all that has collected in the bucket overnight. Still, that first half-glass of maple sap tastes as sweet as the first kiss (or, at least, as the first kiss with an advanced kisser), and is equally lusted after.
And, because I love him so, I gave it all to Cyrus (Josie’s isn’t here today).
And don’t forget to keep your ears open for this wonderful bird while you are collecting your sap. I never tire of it, and no paid entertainment can deliver better than this handsome fellow’s thick, rich song.
This post has been included into the 33rd edition of Simple Life Thursdays.