• Jennifer Sartell

Intro to Maple Syrup Season

We’ve been making maple syrup each spring since 2009, and over the years we’ve learned some things. I’m really happy with the system we have now. It uses minimal supplies that can be used year to year, we only have to check the collection vessels every other day, (or so) and it allows us to do 1 giant boil, as opposed to several smaller ones.

This post will cover how to identify a Sugar Maple (especially in the spring), how to choose a good tree to tap, and when and where to tap.

Find your Trees in the Fall

The first step in tapping a maple tree, is identifying a maple tree. This is easy to do in the summer or fall when the leaves are in tact, but in the late winter/early spring, when all you have to go by is the bark texture and branch structure, it can be tough.

So tapping really begins in the fall. If you have 1 or 2 sugar maples in your yard and you know that those will be the trees that you’ll be tapping, then you’re all set. But if you’re planning on going into a section of woods that are less familiar, you’ll want to identify the trees when you have access to the leaves.

The leaves of a maple tree have 5 main lobes and the leaf is usually slightly wider than it is long. They also have a smooth rounded silhouette to their pointed lobes. Other maples tend to have a sharper, more jagged edge to the leaf.

Sugar Maples vs. Other Trees

You don’t just have to tap Sugar Maples. We’ve tapped Red Maples and Silver Maples. We’ve also tapped Birch trees which have a wintergreen type flavor, and we’ve tapped Black Walnut, which was like maple syrup but slightly more acidic and floral.

According to the DNR you can tap any species of maple including sugar, black, red and silver maple and even box elder trees.

Sugar maples are mainly used to make maple syrup because their sugar content is much higher than other species of maple.

Identifying a Maple Tree in Winter

If you haven’t marked your trees, there are some ways that can help clue you in to whether a maple is a maple.

The acronym MADHorse can help to identify a Maple vs other trees in the woods. Maples are one of the few trees that have opposing branches vs alternating branches. Opposing branches are branches that grow directly across from each other. Where alternating branches are staggered.

The acronym MADHorse Can help you to remember trees that have this opposing branch structure. Maples, Ash, Dogwood and Horse Chestnut are a select group of trees that have this structure.

I've noticed that this branch opposition can be seen more clearly on the newest growth of the tree (shown below). This is a photo of our large Sugar Maple. It's lost a lot of its opposing branches over the years and is somewhat lopsided. But the new growth is clearly growing directly across, in a "V" shape.

Another thing to look at is the bark. The bark on a maple has flat vertical panels and it usually is splitting open on one side.

When to tap

When the daytime temperatures are above 40 degrees, and the nighttime temperatures are below 40 degrees. When the temperature warms, this signals the Maple to send sap up through the tree. When it freezes the sap runs down into the roots. It is in this freezing and thawing that causes the sap to flow.

The sap will continue to flow as temperatures warm, but after the tree begins to bud, the sugar will be used to create leaves and the sap will be bitter.

Where in the world

Zach and I attended a Maple Sugaring workshop in 2010 and during the class they said that maple sugaring can only be done in the northern states, southern Canada and the east coast, but really, if you have maple trees and experience the same fluctuation of temperatures after a freezing winter, I don’t see why the sap wouldn’t flow in the same way.

40 to 1 ratio

The reason store bought maple syrup is so expensive is because it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. Sugar season is also quite short. You have a small window between the first spring thaw and when the trees begin to bud.

How big should the tree be

According to the Maine Extension, a tree should be at least 10 inches in diameter, measured at 4 1/2 feet above the ground, before tapping. Trees between 10 and 20 inches in diameter should have no more than one tap per tree. A second tap may be added to trees between 20 and 25 inches in diameter. Trees over 25 inches in diameter can sustain three taps.

The best place to tap is above a main root or below a main branch and not in line with a previous year’s scar. We’ve also found that our taps on the south side give more sap than other directions.

Will the tree heal itself

Yes! Tapping does not harm the tree in any way. You do not have to fill the holes with anything. The tree will start forming a scar quite quickly after being tapped. This was last year's tap hole and the scab is filled in.

In my next post I'll include equipment choices, collecting process and setting up a kettle boil system with simple items found at most hardware stores.

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