By Aaron Lefland, Forestry and Stewardship Coordinator
For decades, Land’s Sake has been continuing the New England tradition of turning the sweet sap of Sugar Maples into delicious maple syrup. Each year, we tap hundreds of trees, collect thousands of gallons of sap, and boil the sap in our evaporator to create syrup. This blog post will discuss the first step of that process; tapping the trees.
The history of tapping:
It is believed that early Native American populations in present day New England were the first to draw the sap out of Sugar Maples. By making a cut in the bark and allowing the sap to flow down a reed or stick, they could collect the sap in wooden buckets and concentrate the sap by dropping hot stones into the bucket. Over time, European settlers began tapping sugar maples as well, using augers to drill into the trunk of the Sugar Maple and inserting hand made wooden spiles to collect the sap. As the maple sugaring tradition continued, various forms of taps were created and improved upon. Today, most spiles are made of cast aluminum or stainless steel.
A spile is hammered into a pre-drilled hole in the tree. Photo courtesy of Ellen Ellerbee
Where and when do we tap?
Around the town of Weston, there are a number of forest stands that contain a large number of Sugar Maples. These stands are called “sugar bushes” and are the perfect places to tap trees because we can collect a lot of sap from a small area. This year, the majority of our taps will be located in the Sear’s Forest, First Parish Church, and Linwood Cemetery.
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At Land’s Sake, we tap our trees on the early side, usually in late January or early February. That way, we are prepared for an early sap run, and allow the students in our after school programs to tap trees for a couple of weeks before the sap starts to run. Due to the extremely cold winter this year, we installed the last of our taps in late February and are hoping for a sap run in March.
How do we tap?
The first step in tapping is being able to identify a Sugar Maple from the other trees. Luckily, most of our trees are tagged so they are easy to identify, but if you’re starting out in a previously untapped area you’ll need to know what to look for. Sugar Maples are deciduous trees with opposite branching and flaky, potato chip-like bark. They are easiest to identify in the fall when you can see their leaves, but winter identification gets easier as you begin to recognize the unique bark.
After the spile is inserted into the tree, the bucket is hung, and a “hat” is placed on top to keep debris out. Photo courtesy of Ellen Ellerbee.
After we figure out which trees are actually Sugar Maples, the next step is to figure out how many taps each tree will get. Depending on the diameter of the tree, we install either one, two, or tree taps on each tree. To do this, we drill a small hole about two inches into the tree and then hammer a spile into that hole. This spile allows us to hang the iconic sap bucket, and allows the sap to travel out of the tree and into the bucket.
Is tapping a tree bad for the tree?
Tapping a tree and collecting sap is a lot like a person donating blood. The sap is constantly being produced by the tree, so taking a relatively small amount of sap from the tree does it no lasting harm. We take care of our Sugar Maples by only installing taps on trees that are at least one foot in diameter, and do not install multiple taps unless the tree is big enough to handle the added stress. The drill hole also heals relatively quickly, and is almost invisible after a few years.
Want to get involved?
If you are interested in volunteering to collect sap, help with the boiling process, or do anything else maple-related, please join our maple-specific email list HERE. We hope that the sap will be running the next few days and we will need all hands on deck to help collect the hundreds of buckets we have hung with the help of our volunteers and after school group.