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!