The Sap's Rising

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, March 15, 1996

The sun rises earlier and farther north each day now. And on warm days after cold nights, the sap rises in the maple trees.

Next Wednesday is the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring. It is one of the four distinct points on our annual journey around the sun. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun is directly overhead at the equator. Thus the sun rises due east and sets due west everywhere on Earth on those two days.

It doesn't stay in that position long, however. Our relationship with the sun changes the fastest around the time of the equinox. Each day since the winter solstice, by rising and setting a little farther to the north, the sun has taken a slightly longer path across the sky than the day before. The rate of change has been speeding up. It continues to do so until the equinox. Then, as the sun crosses overhead at the equator, it will seem to be moving north most rapidly.

Once it crosses the equator, the sun begins to slow down its apparent northward journey. Although the days will continue to get longer until the June solstice, the amount of change diminishes each day. On the solstice, the sun seems to stand still with very little change from one day to the next.

Living things respond to the rapidly increasing light and warmth, waking from their winter dormancy to begin another season's growth. The potatoes and onions in storage from last year are starting to sprout, anxious to make more potatoes and to produce onion flowers and seeds. We've already begun this year's garden with onion and celery seedlings we started inside several weeks ago.

For the first time in many years we've tapped some maple trees to make syrup. What a wonderful activity. It gets us out into the woods on these beautiful spring days and provides the first harvest of the season, a delicious natural sweetener for oatmeal, pancakes and custard.

It's really amazing how easy it is to make maple syrup on a small scale. So far we have a total of six taps in four sugar maples growing on the hill below our house. Although sugar maples produce the most and best sap, red and Norway maples can also be tapped, according to Euell Gibbons' book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Any trees that are tapped should be healthy and at least 12 to 18 inches in diameter. Another tap can be installed for each additional 6 to 8 inches in diameter. We drill a three-eighths of an inch hole about three inches into the south side of the tree, two to three feet above the ground. The hole intercepts a small part of the sap that is flowing upward in the trunk. This sap is carrying sugars (produced by the leaves last summer) from winter storage in the roots upwards to provide food and energy to swell this year's buds. The tap, a metal spout with a hook to hang a bucket on, fits tightly into the hole with a container underneath to catch the sap. We're using recycled five-gallon buckets that once held various foods. Gallon milk or water jugs also work quite well.

The sap flows best on warm days following nights that were below freezing. One day we got five gallons from the two taps on our best producer. Five gallons of sap, a season's worth from an average tap, will produce a pint of syrup. Some folks are amazed that it takes so much sap to make so little syrup. On the other hand, it is really astonishing that we can get such delicious syrup so easily. Try to produce sweetener from cane, beets, bees or corn. That will make maple syrup seem easy.

Thanks to a suggestion from experienced syrup makers, we're using a short cut. If the sap is left outside in buckets on cold nights, much of the water in it will freeze out as ice, leaving the concentrated sap in the center. We then boil that sap on our wood stove, so it doesn't take any extra fuel. At the very end, we use the gas range to get it to the proper finish, when it sheets off a spoon, and is boiling at seven degrees above the boiling temperature of water.

The taps, from the feed store in Monroe, are the only equipment we bought.

For thousands of years, the humans in this part of the world have taken advantage of the special sweetness of maple sap. If you can't make syrup yourself this year, visit a local sugar house to get in on the first harvest of the year.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.