Maple syrup festivals have started in many areas across Ontario, Quebec and the northeast U.S. It’s a joyous time of year as this signifies not only the first agricultural crop of the year, but winter is on its way out. No matter where you live in the northern latitudes, tapping maple trees is a popular activity.
We’ve come a long way from gathering maple sap in hollowed out logs and boiling it down outdoors in iron kettles. Commercial set ups involve state-of-the-art equipment yet for many, tapping trees with a bucket and spile brings immense pleasure. Over the years not only have maple trees have been tapped, but also birch.
For many of us we do not have the ability or the time to make maple syrup. It takes approximately 40 litres of maple sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup. The sap from the sugar maple tree comes out of the tree with a sugar content of approximately 2%; it must be boiled until it reaches between 66% and 67.5% sugar content in order for it to become syrup. That’s a lot of hard work and dedication that goes into each litre of maple syrup.
Maple syrup is a completely natural product chock full of minerals and plant proteins. Researchers are currently hard at work studying how maple syrup benefits human health.
What Trees Can Be Tapped?
Any maple tree can be tapped, although sugar maple is the tree used for those wanting to make maple syrup due to its high sugar content. The flavour will differ from tree-to-tree but no matter what tree you tap you’re in for a treat. Birch trees, walnut and poplars (which include cottonwoods and aspens) can also be tapped.
Keep in mind though that you may have an allergy to the sap and you MUST follow the universal test before ingesting any sap.
How to Tap a Tree
There are many videos on YouTube you can watch that shows you how to tap a tree; it is a very simple process. What is not so easy to find at YouTube is something very important, what size tree to tap. Many experts weigh in on this but what I have found is that many recommend never tap a tree less than 10” in diametre otherwise you may cause damage to that tree. If a tree exceeds 24” in diametre then you can have two buckets on that tree.
You will need:
- Metal tree spile
- Brace with a 3/8″ bit
- Wire mesh
- Drill the tap hole. The hole should be roughly 3 feet off the ground and positioned on the sunniest side of the tree. Position the bit where you would like to drill the hole and apply a bit of pressure to keep it in place. Then turn the handle of the brace and drill a hole that slants upward slightly. The hole should be 1.5 to 2 inches deep.
- Remove the brace. Then push the bit in and out of the hole a few times to remove wood from the hole.
- Insert the spile into the hole with the lip on the bottom.
- Use a hammer to gently tap the spile so that it sits securely in the hole. Hang the bucket.
- Cover the bucket with thin wire mesh to keep out bugs and debris. Then cover with lid.
The temperature will determine how much sap flows. Ideally the best flow times are when the nights are very cold and the daytime temperature significantly warms up.
You don’t have to turn the sap you collect into syrup; you can keep sap in the fridge up to a month and use it as a drink. Add it to your smoothies, or drink as is.
This apparently is a mast year for sap collecting. What this means is that once every few years perennial trees like sugar maples synchronize their seed cycles and flower as one. Low-seed years usually lead to mass blooms, and may bode particularly well for the maple syrup industry.
In a recently published paper, ecologists at Tufts University near Boston suggest that seed production and syrup are linked. 2014 was a low (maple) seed year in the New England states and scientists reason that the maple trees used their spare energy into producing more carbohydrates. This maple syrup season these carbs will be used to flower and sap collectors should see their buckets fill with rich, sweet sap.
That seed cycle affects syrup yield and this may help the maple farmers. Maple farmers historically relied solely on the weather to predict good and bad syrup years. Mast years, seeds and flowers were never taken into consideration.
Depending where you live, it is almost maple syrup season. So get yourself the tools you’ll need and tap a few trees, even if only to enjoy the nutrients in the tree sap!