I don’t know about any of you, but I think tapping a tree for maple syrup sounds like an afternoon well spent. Especially when it’s free!
Each year around mid-February all the way through March, the Nature Center naturalists teach free programs on Maple tapping. It takes so much work to get everything organized, but it’s well worth the hard effort.
So some of you may be thinking, “Just how hard can Maple Tapping be?” The actually tapping class can be done in an hour or more, but the process we do takes dedication and hard work from everyone participating. Let’s go through it together!
So first and foremost, the health of the tree must be carefully considered. One of our naturalists will head out to the sugar bush to check the trees out.What is the sugar bush? It’s what we call a spot in nature where Maple Trees grow together. So when I say we, check the trees out, what I mean is we look for different clues like, weather, age, health, sap consistency etc
Like with so many other outdoor activities, the weather plays a huge and crucial role with maple syrup. Generally, the ideal temperature for Maple Trees is freezing nights and warm days. So if any of you are in the Chicago area, you can see and feel that we haven’t quite been reaching that pattern yet. Our weather now has been going from 70’s to 30’s in a matter of days.
So why does that matter so much? Well, if the temperature is too warm then the trees will start to bud with leaves. This causes the trunk to swell and gives the sap a bitter taste. This is why we usually don’t tap trees in the middle of the warm spring. Will the tree provide sap? Yes. Will it taste as sweet? Not, unless you enjoy bark flavor in your syrup and I’m not judging!
Likewise, if the temperature is too cold this shocks the roots of the tree and causes the sap flow to freeze, preventing the tree from producing anything at all. So while we’re on the subject of sap flow allow me to mention a fun fact some of you may not know. Don’t kill me, it’s for your education!
All trees contain and produce sap. So why don’t we use the sap from all trees? Because the Maple Tree holds the sweetest content of syrup and who doesn’t want the sweet stuff?
Now with age, it can be tricky. We have Maple Trees that range from 25 years to 100 years old! Pehr Peterson was a Swedish immigrant who traveled to Chicago to grow a tree nursery in the Northern area. In 1856, he purchased land 12 miles from Chicago’s City Hall. Peterson owned about 480 acres of land which was called, Peterson Avenue.
He planted elms, ash, oaks, and maple trees. Almost 100 years later, his trees generations are still growing in our Nature Center! Thanks to Peterson’s nursery, our Maple Trees are still thriving.
So now that we’ve reviewed this history lesson, it’s time to come back to the present. When we check our trees we determine the age of the Maple tree, by the width of the trunk. I call it, “The Hugging Method,” because that’s what we do. If you can fit your arms entirely around the tree and your hands touch without straining, the tree is probably anywhere from 20-25 years old. So we put a red ribbon on the trunk, which tells us they can only be tapped once.
If you arms are getting really snug while trying to reach and just your fingers touch, then the trees are about 40 years old. That tree will get a white ribbon and can be tapped twice.
Finally, if you can’t touch your hands together at all, then that tree is about 100 years old or more. These seniors get a blue ribbon for winning the prize and can be tapped three or four times.
Why does it matter how many times you tap a tree? Because when a tree is a certain age then it only has a certain amount to give. Also, it does not hurt the tree because the trunk has many layers of strong bark and also has a lot of sap to spare.
There are three layers in the tree that we look into. The first is a thin layer of bark, the second is almost like a stronger layer of bark, and the third is the core. Think of this as the tree’s heart. When we tap into the tree, we are literally making a pin prick the size of your pinky’s fingernail. No more than that! So we’re nowhere near the stronger layer or the core of the tree.
Also, since the tree is carrying so much sap, it has enough to spare. Just like humans do when giving blood. Our heart is constantly beating and producing blood and doctors only take out a bit to use, and we’re still ok. It’s the exact same concept with trees.
So in a way, it’s like where being detectives searching for the clues that we need and doctors, checking and managing the tree’s health. But, I’m glad we’re not trees. People could find out our ages by a hug! Yikes!
There’s much more to come in this three part series! In part two, we’ll discuss the history of this sweet tradition from the Native Americans and the tools we use to tap the tree.
If you have any questions please feel free to drop them in the comment box or just let me know your thoughts on this post! Take care and God Bless!