Man has learned many things from wildlife and the collecting of maple sap is one of them. A squirrel will bite into a branch of a maple tree and then drink the flowing sap.
The boiling of sap was discovered by Native Americans after tasting a piece of venison cooked in maple sap and finding that the sap had become a sweet treat.
Our Native Americans would carve a "V" on a sugar maple tree and then attach a wooden spout into the notch so sap would drip into a log bucket placed under the spout. Since the log bucket could not be put over a fire to boil the sap, hot stones were put into the sap-filled bucket.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL BOWER
Pails affixed to maple trees are used to collect sap.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL BOWER
Chuck Bastion feeds the woodfire in his backyard sugar shack.
This year's maple syrup producing season has been rather short due to the extended cold weather in February and March, which delayed the start of collecting sap. Then, the weather changed at the beginning of April, with 60-degree days that definitely shortened the maple syrup season.
The sugaring season typically begins in mid- to late February when temperatures rise above freezing for a few days, bringing about a physiological change inside maple trees that triggers the sap to flow.
The length of the sap season varies, depending on the temperatures; however, an average sugaring season lasts about six weeks. Most producers will be finished boiling sap by mid-April, at which time the night-time temperatures remain above freezing and the tree buds begin to swell.
Sap stops flowing when temperatures no longer fluctuate between freezing at night and thawing during the day.
We all know maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maple trees; however, syrup also can be made from other maple species.
Although the red maple (Acer rubrum) can be tapped, its sap is not as sweet, and the tree's buds open before the sugar maple's buds. When buds break (or expand) in late spring, the sap becomes somewhat bitter and is undesirable for processing.
In Korea, a maple species known as Acer mono is tapped and the sap is piped from the mountains down to the villages. The Koreans drink the sap but do not boil it to produce syrup.
Birch trees also are tapped in Alaska and Siberia, but the sap is lower in both sugar content and quality than maple sap.
The sap of a sugar maple tree appears as water and somewhat compares to water in taste. So, where does the sugar come from? Sugar is produced in the leaves of the tree during photosynthesis. It is transported into the wood and stored during the winter (mostly in the form of carbohydrates) and then converted into sucrose and dissolved into the sap.
In cold climates, trees, especially the sugar maples, store starch in their trunks and roots before winter begins. The starch then is converted to sugar that rises in the sap during early spring.
Sugar maples generally have sap with higher sugar content and produce better-flavored syrup than other maple species. Although no one knows the exact reason for the higher sugar content, scientists suggest it could be related to the structure of the wood.
When conditions are ideal, it takes just over five days for the average tree to produce about 40 gallons of sap, which is enough to make one gallon of syrup.
However, the volume of sap produced during a single season can vary depending on the trees, weather conditions, length of sap season and methods used for collecting sap. Producers using either gravity lines or buckets generally get less sap from a tree than those using vacuum tubing.
As long as a tree remains healthy, it should continue to produce sap. Some sugar maples have been know to produce sap for several farm family generations, well over 100 years
About 300 natural flavor compounds have been found in pure maple syrup; however, not all appear in the same syrup. Most of these compounds are detected by smell.
There is one compound linked to maple flavor that is present in all pure maple products, but varies in amount between producers and time of year. As is the case for most natural products, maple syrups have complex flavor chemistry to delight your sense of taste and smell.
Syrup quality is affected by weather conditions during the maple season; time when the sap is collected and the processing technique. There are some producers in every region that are consistently able to produce a lighter colored syrup and higher quality products; however, no one region is better than another.
Well, smoke has been coming from the local sap houses for several weeks, and I can't wait until I have fresh maple syrup on homemade ice cream.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.