The Sweet Science of Sugaring
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
It is odd how cold days in the middle of winter can make me think fondly of the smell of maple sap boiling into a sweeter form. Sure enough, as I walked by a sugar maple tree the other day, my thoughts went to a pot of boiling sweetness. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will go in depth on the science of sugaring.
The process of maple sugaring was first introduced to European settlers by Native Americans who long ago found the benefits of boiling this sweet substance. Originally the product produced was maple sugar, a much easier form to store and travel with. Now the cash crop is maple syrup, ideal for use on pancakes, waffles, coffee and tea. Virginia politicians such as Governor Berkley and Thomas Jefferson wrote of the worthy qualities of maple sugar. Jefferson saw maple sugar as a means to break from dependance on the West Indies for sugar cane. He planted a sugar maple plantation at Monticello from Vermont stock. Alas, the Piedmont is not an ideal growing site for sugar maples and the plantation no longer exists. Head west and you will find sugar maples in much larger quantities. Highland County’s sugar maple production is the best in the state and has grown into a lovely sugar maple festival (which is sadly cancelled for 2021). Wintergreen has a bounty of sugar maples and for years we produced a high-quality syrup…if I might say so myself.
There are a few key components of maple sugaring. The first is to make sure you collect the first fruits. As the days creep above freezing, and temperatures average 35-45 degrees and are accompanied by freezing nights, the taps had best be in the trees. This process depends on location and microclimate. For instance, maple stands in western New York won’t be ready to tap until late February at the earliest, while the taps have just been installed in Highland County. At tree at the bottom of a cold ravine will not be as productive as a sugar maple at the top of the ravine. The first fruit from a sugar maple will have the highest sugar content and will yield the best quality syrup.
A couple more key factors are site and tree selection. My favorite sites are high elevation sites facing east/southeast. This allows for the requisite temperatures but increases the amount of time for the sap to run due to receiving the earliest sunlight. The choice of trees is important as well. The tree must be over 10 inches in diameter, but shy away from necessarily choosing the biggest specimen. Over-mature trees will not provide great yields, so don’t be tempted to tap only the largest options available. Additionally, open grown trees will outproduce species in a dense forest. A productive tree will produce 10 gallons of sap per tap. Additional taps can be placed for every 6-8 inches in diameter.
Tapping a tree is making a hole in the tree for sap to run out. The diameter of the hole should be around 5/16” and 3 inches deep. Hammer the tap into the hole with a couple sharp blows and attach your collection device. This can take multiple forms. Buckets and bags are the easiest and most common collection devices. They will need to be checked and emptied daily. If you are using a tube system to deposit sap in a collection devise, you do not need to be quite as diligent due to it depositing into a large, closed container. Make sure you store sap in a refrigerator or outside in a cold, dark location.
The boiling is the part that certainly stirs up memories for me. The sweet smell of sap boiling is one of my all-time favorites. I highly recommend boiling outside or in a location that sticky evaporation won’t cause a problem. First, figure out your water boiling point, which changes with elevation. Then add 7.1 degrees and you have the temperature at which you have maple syrup. Keep a large container at a rolling boil and be sure to add sap as you get towards the bottom of your pan. As your sap reaches syrup status, decrease your heat and keep an eye on your thermometer. Syrup will reach candy and sugar status very quickly so be vigilant. Pour your hot syrup into a clean container, seal the can and your syrup can be stored for up to a year.
You will know you have hit the end of sap gathering season when the color changes. When the clarity of sap gives way to a yellow hue, the tree is preparing to break bud. This yellow is an increase in bacteria and will taint your syrup.
Go forth and find some prime sugar maples and get to tapping. If you need tree identification, send a picture to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to borrow a tap and bucket to use for the season contact me and I can lend you the resources. Happy sugaring!