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Maple Sugaring – You Can Do This At Home! A photo-essay

Tapping maple trees to collect their sap & make delicious maple syrup is limited to a certain area of the world: the northeast part of this continent. Here in Maryland, we’re lucky to just fall within that range. Sap flowing in maple trees is dependent upon specific weather conditions: nights below freezing and days that are “balmy” – in the 40-50 degree range. That window of weather conditions is just a few weeks in late winter (and again in the fall. But “sugaring” is usually only done in late winter.) Several nature centers here in Maryland have hosted sugaring events over the past few weekends; these pictures are from Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Hunt Valley.

So, what is “tapping” a maple tree all about?

First, you need to identify a maple tree. That can be pretty easy during the summer, and especially so in the fall when the maple trees are graced with brilliantly colored leaves. But late February? No leaves on the tree …

Look for trees with opposite branching:

and twigs that end in a terminal bud:

We will only tap maple trees that are more mature, so that they are easily able to heal from the drilling process. So we’ll choose a tree that is at least 10″ in diameter, or over 31″ in circumference.

Now that we know what tree we’ll tap, we assemble our supplies. To start the process of tapping a tree, you’ll need an augur to drill the hole in the tree. Next, a “spile” (acts as a straw) is inserted in the hole, and “tapped” in with a hammer. Then a bucket is attached to collect the sap.

Whittling a homemade spile is a fun part of the process. At Oregon Ridge, we used sumac – the pith is soft and easy to pick out with a “reamer” (coat hanger & duct tape!). Notably, we used red sumac, as white sumac is poisonous.

     

We carried our supplies with us for a short hike to our maple tree. Pick a spot on the tree at least 6″ from any previous tapping holes, again – to let the tree heal. This looks like a good spot:

With the augur, drill a hole about 2-1/2 to 3″ deep. (oops, no pic!)

Insert the spile, and tap it in!

If the temperature is right, the sap will start dripping down the spile immediately. Attach a jug. We have sap!

A more traditional collecting method is metal buckets and spiles. A lid keeps the squirrels and birds out of the sap!

    

A maple tree can give several gallons of sap a day. This means you’re going to each tree you’ve tapped at least once a day, collecting the sap into bigger containers, and taking it back to the “sugar shack” to evaporate it. A lot of work! A more modern method is to join the spiles with rubber tubing. Sap from several trees can be collected in a large container. And of course now we have motorized vehicles to transport the sap back for processing, rather than walking with buckets or using horses & carts.

    

Sap from a maple tree only 1-6% sugar; the rest of it is water. The water needs to be boiled off – this takes several hours.

The Native Americans would pour their sap into a trough made from a tree. They would heat rocks in a campfire, and toss the very-hot stones into the trough.The hot stones would raise the temperature of the sap & eventually, with enough stones (i.e a lot!), the sap would get hot enough for the water to boil away, leaving the syrup.

The early american settlers brought metal skills. They would heat the sap in big pots. Here at Oregon Ridge, we demonstrated a small version of the process.

As technology evolved, evaporators were designed – big wood stoves with a pan on top.

The evaporators were run in small buildings, evenutally nicknamed the “sugar shack”. When the evaporators were running, and steam flowing from the roof, that was a sign that the “sugar was running”. At Oregon Ridge, visitors to the “sugar shack” could sample fresh sap from the trees, as well as a variety of maple syrup grades.

It takes 50 gallons of sugar maple sap to make 1 gallon of delicious syrup! All that work is why maple syrup is so expensive.

In closing, the maple sugaring event at Oregon Ridge Nature Center closed with making “jack wax” – a yummy caramelly, taffy candy made by boiling maple syrup to a certain temp, then pouring it onto snow. (In our case, crushed ice). There are no pictures because we ate it so fast, it was so good!

Do You Hear Bird Song in the Morning?

A sure sign that spring is arriving is hearing birdsong in the morning, just before the sun rises. I get to hear that. Do you?

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States,” wrote Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, “spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

The loss of natural sounds is spawning a new field of study called soundscape ecology. The effort is led by ecologist Bryan Pijanowski of Purdue University and colleagues.

They are studying:

  • Biophony – the music created by organisms like frogs and birds
  • Geophony – the composition of non-biological sounds like wind, rain, and thunder
  • Anthrophony – the conglomeration of noise from humans

More about the work and the importance of natural sounds to avoid Nature Deficit Disorder is found in this article on PhysOrg dot com.

A beautiful trail for a lunchtime walk:

Disturbed by the constant din of highway noise:

Maple Sap is Flowing – Time to Make Syrup!

The nights are cold with temps below the freezing point. Daytime is noticeably warmer – you want to linger in the sunshine. It begins to feel like spring is on the way.

That’s what’s needed for sap to start flowing in the maple trees. Stored in their roots and trunk, with the right temperature conditions, the sap begins to flow upwards to help make leaves.

A small hole can be tapped into the tree; a “spile” inserted for the fluid to flow through; and a bucket hung to collect the dripping sap.

A tapped tree at Marshy Point Park:

    

The sap only contains 2-4% sugar (or less, depending upon the type of maple tree). It’s boiled (for a long time) until it concentrated enough to become syrup, candy, or sugar. Yumm!

But, it takes 50 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup. That’s a lot of collecting buckets, carrying them to the fire, and boiling for hours – it’s very hard, laborious work.

There are many stories describing how maple sap was discovered or how people learned to boil it into sugar. One story relates to all the hard work involved; according to Native American legend, the sap flowed sweeter at one time.

In a story from the Anishinabe people of the Great Lakes Region, the maple trees were filled with the thick, sweet syrup year-round. All you had to do was break off a twig and suck the sweetness.

One time, Manabozho (a Anishinabe folk here) checked on an Indian village. He didn’t see anyone farming, fishing, or gathering. Instead, they were just laying on the ground next to maple trees, with their mouth open, letting the sweet syrup drip into their mouths.

Manabozho was horrified and feared that his people would get fat and lazy. So he collected baskets of water, poured it into the trees, and thinned out the syrup. Now, people have to work to get the thick syrup. And now the sap runs only at a certain time of the year, insuring that people will not neglect their fishing, hunting, gardening, and gathering.

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Tapping maple trees for sap is a popular family outing in Maryland. Many parks and nature centers hold programs that let you to tap a tree and taste and collect the sap flow, watch the process of boiling the sap and evaporating the water, and take home samples of candy or syrup.

My handmade whittled spile:

 

The “Quickening” Moon of February

The full moon in February is known as the “Quickening” moon. It marks the end of winter and the quickening – when all things are coming back to life. Though the days are cold and still short, life stirs. A part of the cycle of celebrating the sun’s return.

Starling Murmuration Right Over My House

A surprise starling murmurization right over my deck this morning starting at 7:00am. I was lucky to be home this morning, and lucky that I had gone out to fill the bird feeders. Otherwise I would’ve missed it.

Since I last posted about this, I’ve learned that the phenomenon of a huge flock of starlings in flight at the same time is called murmurization. It’s something I’ve seen often and consider it ‘normal’. But Wired Science calls is “one of nature’s most extraordinary sights”. Good article here.

This flock doesn’t seem to be originating from Days Cove in Joppatowne. Possibly. But I think they may be starting from APG.

I’ve wondered why they are flying north. But the instructor at last Saturday’s bird discussion at Anita Leight Estuary Center said that they are heading north to spend the day at Harford Glen. That sounds nice; one day I also will spend the day at Harford Glen.

A really neat video of a murmurization in Scotland, set to music. Such graceful flowing patterns.

Celebrating the Sun’s Return

Sunrise over the Gunpowder River as seen traveling by MARC train

Many people who love the outdoors and become enamored with learning more about the natural world tend to concentrate on a favorite area: such as plants, or fish, or birds. My fascination is around the cultural traditions that have developed around the changing of the seasons.

The origin of Groundhog Day goes way back to ancient Celtic times and is associated with the goddess Brigid (later named a saint in Christianity). This day celebrated the first signs of spring, giving hope that light, warmth, and growth were returning to the world.

The Romans, Egyptians, and agrarian cultures practiced similar celebrations at this time of year. In religious observations, Christians celebrate Candlemas and in the Jewish faith, the day marks the 40th day after birth (Christmas) – the length of a time for a woman to be cleansed after a birth.

Over time, the celebration of early signs of spring has evolved in the U.S. to watching a groundhog emerge from his home to see if he casts a shadow …

Personally I love pausing a moment to enjoy the earlier sunrise on my morning commute or from my back deck.