Sweet, sweet sap

This has been the interminable winter here in the Great Lakes.  As of a snowfall yesterday, we are only three inches away from tying the all-time snowiest winter for Detroit since 1880-81.

We’ve had a few days of forty degrees and two that were just above fifty, but mostly it’s been cold and snowy.  We’re getting sunnier days now and quite often it feels like we’re on that hinge point between winter and spring, which is only just over a week away.

This time of year though is special.  As the days warm, yet the nights stay cold, the sap begins to flow in trees.  That means the first farm crop that can be harvested in Michigan is almost ready.

What am I talking about?  Arugula?  No, that would have been planted in late summer or early fall and probably the season was over in January (if you had them covered.  Asparagus?  Nope, too early.  So what then?

I could only be talking about maple syrup.  That sweet, gooey goodness that comes from a tree.

"The Collection Bucket"

“The Collection Bucket”

 

My experience with maple syrup didn’t start until much later in life (my twenties, if I recall correctly).  I was a devotee of Mrs. Butterworth’s and no tree sap was going to change my mind.

I don’t know when I made the switch exactly, but I don’t want to go back to that old corn lady.  Sure, maple syrup costs more, but hey, it’s almost guaranteed to be organic and sustainable and supports local economies.

In fact, per tablespoon of maple syrup you’ll ingest 20 mg calcium, 2 mg phosphorous, 2 mg iron, 2 mg sodium (yes, they even put salt on trees!) and 35 mg of potassium.  What’s your corny syrup have?

Maple syrup is only produced in the northeastern US and eastern Canada.  How far west the range extends, I’m not sure, but probably not west of Minnesota, if that.

The Michigan Maple Syrup Association claims it is the oldest agricultural enterprise in the US, but I’m not clear on what that means?  Older than corn and squash?  The oldest enterprise that involved the exchange of money?  The website doesn’t clarify that.  Obviously, though, the Indians were the first to discover the sweetness hidden beneath the bark.

Doing it on her own

Speaking of Michigan, according to 2004 figures, Michigan is 5th in the nation for syrup production with 90,000 gallons harvested per year.  It appears to be one of those rare products where demand exceeds supply, possibly explaining the relatively high cost–and perhaps because the US Farm Bill does not include subsidies for maple trees.

The sap is collected from the xylem in sugar, red, and black maple trees, although other species of maple can be tapped, but the sugar content is lower resulting in less sweetness, less syrup,  or more boiling time.  In Korea, people drink the sap from Acer mono, another maple species, but don’t produce syrup.  And in Alaska and Siberia, birch trees are tapped, but again sugar content is much lower.

The flavor is affected by soil type, tree genetics, and the weather during the tapping season.  Pressure develops in the tree when the temps are above freezing and this pushes the sap out of a wound or a tap.

Maples are tapped once they reach about 10 inches in diameter with one tap.  The largest trees have a maximum of three taps.  On average, given the tree, weather, length of sap season, and method, one can harvest about 10-20 gallons per tap.

Pouring sap

Once it’s bottled, maple syrup is good for over a year.

In the Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of a winter treat where hot maple syrup is poured over snow to create a proto-snow cone.  My father-in-law can attest to this.

If you’re at all interested in making your own maple syrup, you don’t have to own 40 acres of sugar bush, you could, with your neighbors’ consent, tap the trees right around you.

The challenge this month isn’t to tap a maple tree, but it is two-fold: see if you can identify some of the still naked maples in your neighborhood (sugar maples have “peanut-butter valleys” between ridges of bark) and buy some locally/regionally produced maple syrup.

You’re welcome!

55 gallons of sap

55 gallons of sap

Information was gleaned from the Michigan Maple Syrup Association and Cornell.edu.

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Caller ID?

courtesy commons wikimedia

courtesy commons wikimedia

Surely you’ve heard plenty of birds calling by now. Here in SE Michigan, plenty of spring species have arrived: red-winged blackbirds, turkey vultures, great blue herons, goldfinches, house finches, and more than I can currently recount.

Have you taken time to listen to the calls? Can you identify the singers? I’ve noticed more about robin calls this spring then I had before. I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing more than the original nesting pair of red-winged blackbirds in my neighborhood–there have to be at least three pair now. I find their calling the most interesting out of the birds in my neighborhood. What’s your favorite birdsong?

I’ve found a few interesting tools that help bring birds in closer for viewing, or at least create some interaction between them and me. One are various kinds of bird calls. I bought a crow call which works well as I’ve brought in some crows twice now with it. Supposedly it works with wild turkeys too, but I haven’t tried it that way at all. For my birthday this month I received a hawk call and an owl call. I haven’t been able to use them to any effect yet, but you can be sure I’ll be trying this summer. I can do a decent Eastern screech owl call without any artificial aids, but my barred owl call might use the help from the plastic call.

Another interesting item I’ve come across is this book. I haven’t finished reading it, but so far I’m impressed simply by the author’s writing style. Dunne uses humor in a genre that tends to be very SERIOUS, full of gravitas, as this is NATURE we’re talking about, we can’t be joking. As I mentioned I haven’t finished it yet, but it looks helpful and is wonderfully readable.

So, if you haven’t paid attention to the warnings, flirtation, and other bird chatter happening around you, get outside, sit still and enjoy the concert.

Afterglow

Were you able to ID any naked trees?  It certainly helps when you know what the tree is when it’s “clothed.”  Did you spot any with the beginnings of buds on them?  A couple of maples down the street from me have buds that will probably burst out late next month.

Most people appreciate a tree that crowned in glory with leaves, but there is something attractive about a naked tree.  Perhaps it is that it can’t hide any of its shape or branches.  Possibly its the contrast of the landscape with the stark, muted tones of the bark.  A snow or ice covered tree can be otherworldly if you take the time to observe.  Whatever it might be, try to get out, enjoy the last of winter and notice some details in the arbor.  Before you realize, spring will change the colors, textures, smells, and sounds around you.

The Maple that survived Death Storm 2013.

The Maple that survived Death Storm 2013.