I have known where maple syrup comes from since I was a child reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder book “Little House in the Big Woods” where Pa taps the trees and comes home with gallons of maple sap. The simple, true story set in Wisconsin in the late 1800s, describes in great detail how maple sap becomes maple syrup and maple sugar The little girls’ memories of the event and the taste of maple candy is invigorating even today, when I read those same stories to my children. I live on the west coast though, and we can’t grow sugar maples here so the story remains just that, a story. Or not?
I read last year that people on the west coast were tapping broad leaf maple trees. Not only were they collecting sap, but they were having maple syrup festivals, local high-end restaurants were buying it, and the few local farms tapping and selling the syrup can’t keep up with the demand. Hipsters on 100 mile diets from the city, craving syrup that, typically until now was not a product produced within a 100 mile radius, are buying local maple syrup for $20 a cup. That’s $80 a litre!
I started talking to others about trying to tap my own bigleaf maple trees. I was quickly shut down by many people. It isn’t worth the effort. It requires being rendered down 80:1 rather than the typical sugar maple which is 50:1. But as is typical for me, “isn’t worth the effort” isn’t really in my vocabulary. Isn’t worth the effort typically means: it is a lot cheaper and easier to go out and buy it. Truth. However, homesteading isn’t done because it is worth the effort (financially). I homestead for the experience. Maple sugaring is no different. And the effort put into it is worth it in such a big way that those people can’t even imagine it. It’s the bigger picture. It is beyond physical effort. It is satisfaction, pleasure, sustainability, all rolled into one big picture. Homesteading. Do you get it? Well I do.
I bought some spiles (or taps) online. The first four were made of stainless steel, and their arrival sparked that good old homesteading thrill that makes this lifestyle worth living. They have that wholesome, raw appearance that other homesteading devices have like wooden buckets, spinning wheels and axes. But it was raining so hard my thoughts were on building an ark instead of tapping trees.
A few days later the weather warmed to record highs. The sun shone and this was the day to tap the trees. I re-read my directions, and went out with my glass bottles, spiles, a drill and tubing under my arm. I was trailed by 3 intensely interested young children, a dog and a few chickens. You know what they say about learning: when the teacher is excited about the subject the pupils will learn.
One drilling produced sap. It was literally dripping out of the tree. It tasted mildly sweet, much like coconut water. Once the spile was in place and the tubing attached to the spile and the glass jug, collection officially began. The warm weather caused a beautiful sap flow, and the jars were full in a few hours. I was ecstatic. The dripping did slow down that night, and while still dripping continually, the weather cooled a bit resulting in less sap than the first few hours. The pleasure was all mine.
Over the following weeks my “maple tap trail” became a bit of an event. Others were interested in coming to see these trees being tapped, and I opened it up to visitors. My daughters’ kindergarten and grade 2 classes both came over to have a look. And I was given the opportunity to prove, once again, to my neighbour that, at least in his eyes, I am stark raving mad. Some days were so busy that I wasn’t able to walk my maple tap trail until after dark, bucket in hand, and headlamp strapped to my head. One of the best producing trees is on the border of my inlaw’s property and their neighbour, seeing a light in the forest, shone a bright light out towards me.
“Whose out there?”
“Oh, just me, your crazy neighbour. I am tapping the maple trees.”
Dead silence, followed by disbelieving chuckling. Then he called his wife and chuckled some more.
Yes, once again, there was absolutely nothing I could say to the dear neighbour to prove that I wasn’t crazy. I grinned helplessly and hoped he thought I was my mother-in-law, not me….
Follow my blog for the next chapter of Maple Sugaring: Syrup! coming soon.
Health benefits of maple sap and syrup:
- Maple syrup is high in minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron and zinc.
- Maple sap or water can boost energy without spiking your blood sugar level.
- Maple sap or water, similar in taste to coconut water, it is very mildly sweet and a refreshing
- First Nations people used to drink maple sap at the end of every winter to help rejuvenate the body and regain vitamins and minerals that were lost due to an unvaried winter diet of dehydrated food.
How to tap maple trees:
- Buy or make spiles.
- Drill a 2.5 inch hole into the tree, slightly smaller in diameter than the spile.
- Tap the spile into the hole.
- Attach a food grade hose to the spile.
- Put the hose in a container.
- Check frequently to empty your container.
When to start and stop tapping:
You can start tapping bigleaf maple trees on the south coast of BC, Washington and Oregon any time during the winter, before the buds start developing. Once the buds develop the taste will become more bitter and you should stop collecting.
It isn’t recommended that you tap your tree more than 1 month long for the health of the tree.
How to store the sap:
Pouring the sap through fine strainer into a large pot that sits on our wood stove all the time, proved the best way to deal with the sap. It slowly reduced and I continued to add sap to it throughout the sap run. You can store sap in the freezer until you render it down, but 80 L of sap is a lot to store in the freezer….. especially when all your freezers are already full of food.
You aren’t limited to just tapping maple trees. Other trees you can tap: