If you are looking for a sign of approaching spring, look no further than the maple tree and its sugary sap. The season of sugaring begins when the daytime temperature in midwinter rises above freezing. The sap or "lifeblood" of the deciduous maple is stored below ground during the cold winter months. When the sun begins to climb higher in the sky in February and March, the ground thaws and the water is drawn up through the trunk.
If you would like to try sugaring in your yard, you must first identify if you have a maple tree on your property. You can "tap" sugar maple, red maple, and silver maple trees, but if you have a choice, sugar maple is the way to go!
How Do You Identify a Maple Tree?
Maple trees have opposite arrangements of their buds. This means the leaves on the stem alternate sides rather than directly across from one another.
Leaf color in the fall is also a good way to identify the type of maple. Orange leaves indicate a sugar maple, yellow for a Silver maple, and red leaves for the red maple.
The last thing you need to consider before you begin tapping your tree is the size of the tree. The tree must be at least 12" in diameter for you to be able to tap the tree and get results. This also ensures no damage will be done to the tree itself.
What Supplies Do You Need?
Once you have identified a tree with a diameter of at least one foot, you need a hand drill, a spile, a bucket or sugaring bag, and a hammer or rubber mallet.
Hardware stores may have spiles, or the spouts that are inserted through the bark. However, Leader Evaporator in Vermont is one of many suppliers that offer equipment for small sugaring ventures. You can visit their website here.
How Do You Tap the Tree?
First, you want to find the side of the tree that faces south. This ensures that the tapped side will get the most exposure to the sun. To extract the sap:
1. Use a 7/16 drill bit and corresponding spile.
2. Drill about 1 ½ to 2 inches through the bark.
3. With a hammer or rubber mallet, tap in the spile deep enough to seat the spile but no so far that you plug the end with wood.
4. Attach a milk jug, bucket or collection bag.
When the daytime temperature creeps above freezing, the sap should begin to drip or "run." If the run is quick and you collect more than a couple of gallons, you should boil it down as soon as possible. If the weather turns cold, you may store the sap in the refrigerator for a couple of days.
You need 40-45 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of syrup--but don't get discouraged, you can still get a quarter cup syrup or more from a few gallons of sap.
You Have Sap, Now What?!
Once you have a few gallons of sap, you are ready to boil it. First, pass the sap through cheesecloth netting to remove any debris collected during the extraction process.
Next, put your sap into a pot and, using a candy thermometer, boil off the water until the golden liquid boils at 219 degrees F. If it begins to foam, place a drop of vegetable oil or butter into the container to prevent it from boiling over. Remove from heat and allow the liquid to cool before pouring it into a clean glass jar with a lid.
Now you have maple syrup, enjoy your hard work with a waffle, a pancake or whatever your "sweet" heart desires!
- Mary Gillick, Environmental Educator