March and Maple Syrup

Most of us are familiar with the old weather proverb saying ‘March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’. It’s one of those adages of uncertain lineage we like to trot out more as a way to comment about the weather rather than from any real belief in its accuracy. Certainly this March has started out living up to the saying. The past few days have yo-yoed from a balmy fifty degrees down into the single digits with a ferocious wind adding to the chill. Since technically it’s still winter, this shouldn’t be all that surprising but after being teased by pseudo-spring like conditions, it does come as a shock.

Still, the days are getting noticeably longer. The snow pack in the back yard which shortly after Valentine’s Day was over two feet deep has now shriveled down to a meager few inches. Bird activity has picked up with crows calling incessantly back and forth and tufted titmice whistling as they begin preparing to establish nesting territories. Chickadees along with nuthatches can be heard twittering as they climb up and down tree branches searching for hibernating insects. There is also that activity most often associated with New England, maple sugaring.

Maple syrup has a long history in New England, with the heaviest production coming from Vermont. Native Americans originally tapped the maple as it provided a source of energy and trace minerals in the late winter when other sources of food were in short supply. The sweet flavor helped add to the appeal of harvesting it. Traditional stories suggest that they were just as vulnerable to the temptation of overdoing it as we are today, as one of the Abenaki legends of Gluskabe relates.

Early European settlers quickly adopted the practice of tapping maple trees, gradually refining the technique of boiling down the tree sap to produce syrup. Cane sugar replaced maple sugar as the main sweetener around the time of the Civil War, but that didn’t stop efforts to boost maple syrup production and improve marketing. The technology has remained basically the same since then with minor tweaks and improvements. A farmer of the late 1800’s would have no difficulty recognizing many of the tapping techniques still in use today.

The production of maple syrup, however, has gotten dicier in recent years due to global warming. Maple trees need a combination of mild days in the upper thirties and low forties followed by cold nights below freezing to promote a good flow of sap for producers to tap. Too warm and the sap shoots to the top of the tree instead of rising slowly and dripping gradually into the sap buckets. This leads to poor quality maple syrup. Producers are struggling to adapt to the new normal, which given the current wild gyrations of the climate, is nearly impossible to determine. Given the recent struggles of maple sugarers, it’s fair to ask if there are other trees that could be tapped in a similar fashion. Well, it turns out there are.

The birch tree is often mentioned as an alternative to sugar maples. The flavor (which I haven’t tried) is different from maple syrup. Birch syrup contains only 1 to 2 percent sugar as compared to 8 percent for maple. It has been described as spicy-sweet by some and other as caramel-like with a fruity undertone. Because of its lower sugar content, it takes more birch sap to boil down to syrup, usually about a hundred gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup as opposed to 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of syrup. So don’t expect to see mass quantities of this on the grocery shelf anytime soon. You can purchase birch syrup online, though it can be a bit pricey.

Another tree to look at is the sycamore. It can be tapped much the same way as the birch and maple. The flavor is described as honey like early in the season and developing a butterscotch flavor later on. I haven’t found any online sources to purchase this product if you are curious about it. Unfortunately New Hampshire (the southern part of it) is just at the edge of the northern range for sycamores, so I don’t anticipate this becoming a replacement for our beloved sugar maples any time soon.

Other trees that have potential for tapping are walnuts, ironwood, box elder (actually a member of the maple family) and hickory. If you have any of these types of trees on your property, feel free to experiment. Just be aware that each will likely have its own unique flavor which may or may not appeal to you. Also, and this is extremely important, be certain you are correctly identifying the tree in question. While I am not aware of any tree sap that is out and out poisonous, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one and it’s best to avoid unwelcome surprises. So educate yourself on what type of trees you have in your area. Once you’ve accomplished that, there are plenty of books and online sources detailing the process of tapping which can be quite laborious but ultimately rewarding.

Happy sugaring!

A little postscript:
I am pleased to announce that I have sold one of my short stories, A Change In The Wind, to Into The Ruins, a quarterly magazine published by Joel Caris. Thank you, Mr Caris!