Monday, February 14, 2011

Tappy Valentine's Day

Sorry folks, that was terrible!

Today is Valentine's day and my husband Jeremy and I spent the morning out at Roheryn Farms tapping their maple trees. This is our first year tapping maples, and I have to admit when we got out there it was pretty daunting. Their woods is full of maples, which is great. The problem was that there were all different types of maples. They have sugar maples, red maples, silver maples and even some box elder. This time of year, unless you really know what to look for, it's very easy to mistake one species for another. After some quick smart-phone research (this is where these silly contraptions really come in handy) I was able to identify the different trees by their bark texture.

The way to identify a tree in the maple family is to look for the opposite branches. Of course in a dense woods like at Roheryn, this is difficult because often one or the other opposite branch has snapped off as the tree has grown. There were very long minutes of standing in the cold wind staring straight up into 50 year old crowns until at last "Aha!" my eyes would focus in like a zoom lens on a small twig high above my head that would confirm the towering tree's family. Opposite branching means that the smallest branches, when growing, grow out of the same point on the supporting branch.

Next was identifying which type of maple we were looking at. We only tapped one red maple and, quickly realizing our mistake, removed the spiles and apologized to the poor tree. The thing about maple trees is that, while their bark is very different from species to species, there is no black and white. Red maples can have sugar-maple-like bark, and vice versa. The best way to identify the sugar maples that we found was to look for maples that have strips of bark that appeared loose. It's the kind of tree that if you leaned a firm hand against it while hiking, you might snap off some of the bark that was jutting out away from the tree. Red and Silver maples have bark that snugs closely to them, flush against the trunks. I wish this were easier to explain.

Anyway, we figured it out and after that tapping trees went much faster. Some of the trees are nearly three feet thick, and we found quickly that the sap rises in the big trees earlier than it does the smaller ones. The trees that were at least two feet thick all started dripping as soon as we drilled. Some of the narrower trees didn't seem to have sap risen yet at all, so Lauren from Roheryn is going to text me today to let me know if they're still not flowing. If they're still not flowing tomorrow I may move the spiles to the bigger trees. My guess is they'll rise this afternoon since it's supposed to be considerably sunnier today.

If you've been following our blog, you'll know that I've been attempting (and failing) to cut down on the plastic in my life. We have started changing over from plastic water storage to glass, just about as quickly as we can drink apple cider. This left us with lots of old, clean, water jugs made of plastic, and as I have a habit of reusing plastic rather than eliminating it, it should come as no surprise that I came up with a way to mount them to spiles to collect sap. Since Lauren and Heather are only able to check and empty the containers once a day, I needed something bigger than a mason jar to collect sap. This is our first year tapping so we're not ready to launch into metal buckets but we'll likely try to pick some up when we visit New Hampshire later this year... Supposedly in sap country out there, they're fairly easy to pick up used for a fraction of the cost for new.

You should have seen me when we tapped our first sugar maple that had sap that had already risen. It started spilling out of the drilled hole and I did a little dance and immediately swiped some of the sap off the tree with my finger, grinning feverishly. I'm surprised Jeremy didn't have me committed after that! I admit I'm pretty geeked about the whole thing. We have a whole load of wood, too soft to burn in the wood stove, standing at the ready for boiling down the sap next week.

Even if we only get a few gallons of sap, and thus a few ounces of syrup, this has been a really fun experience and it has been the perfect way to enjoy the first big melt. I hope in the future it will become the hobby that keeps me going through the last month or so of winter before the gardening season begins.

Have you ever tapped trees, maple or otherwise? What do you use to get you over the last hump of winter?


  1. Beautiful pictures! At the nature center where I work we are having our Maple Sugaring Festival this weekend. This part of Maryland is just about the sugar maples' lowest tolerated latitude--they generally wouldn't grow this far south but the ones we have are doing very well. We also tap a small number of red maple trees because the sugar maples don't yield enough sap on their own; altogether we make about 1 gallon of maple syrup a year from the trees. It's obviously an educational effort rather than a commercial one :)

    The sugar maples have a great deal of personality, I think. My favorite thing is watching the critters that are attracted to the flowing sap, too--sapsuckers and mourning cloak butterflies who take advantage of the sapsucker holes. Last year the best-producing sugar maple sustained some significant damage in some high winds but is still soldiering on. AND (this is my favorite part) if a small branch or twig is cut or broken off, the sap leaks out. If it's cold enough, it freezes and you get sapsicles!! (Just try licking's amazing!)

    Good luck with the rest of the maple sugaring season!

  2. It's so much fun reading blogs that sound so much like mine. We were also so excited when the sap trickled from the tree.

    We got about 4 gallons of syrup from all we collected and were ready to quit after that. We had a little sap left so we gave it to our goats and my friend's sheep and they went nuts over it.