Better Leafing Through Chemistry

I’ve found that the internet has dumbed down so much of our culture, but infographics are a neat way to present some nuggets of information in a memorable way.

Here’s one on the chemistry of fall colors.



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

Hey, Bud…

It’s March which can only mean that the white-knuckle grip of winter is loosening (though for the southern hemisphere, it’s on it’s way in three months–which I’m curious, by the way, what’s it like to celebrate Lent and Easter during the fall?).

So, the light endures longer, the temperatures creep up, the wet soil exudes odors once again.  March is a month on the edge–balanced between winter white and spring brown.  Robins have been spotted in SE Michigan as well as sandhill cranes.  I haven’t remembered to check for them, but one might be able to spy snow fleas bouncing near the base of trees.

This month’s challenge doesn’t require any identification skills–though you still might want to employ them–go outside (of course) and submit the date when you notice the first buds sprouting.  These buds (or in times of dearth–a bud) can be from some irises you planted (yes, I’m forgoing my chauvinism for all things native for this month) or from the tree you identified back in the fall or last month. Simply make sure it is a new bud and not a seedhead left over from last summer or fall.

What you might not know about tree buds is that if you have neighbors who keep honeybees, those bees, providing they survived the winter, will be out searching for nectar found in those tree buds.  Sometimes maple, certainly basswood, but many trees are one of the earliest sources of nectar for honeybees here in the north at least.  Oh, I almost forgot to tell you to look for snowdrops, usually the earliest of the wildflowers to appear–almost always before the vernal equinox.

There you are, readers.  I’ve given you another opportunity to go outside, explore your ecosystem, and sharpen your ID skills.  I’d love to see some posts about your first sightings of spring in your neighborhood.  Let me know.


You shouldn’t see trillium blooming in March in Michigan, but it’s the only photo of mine I have from last spring still on my hard drive.



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.

How to make love to a naked tree

I know, I know, I stooped to such a base level to get your attention, but it’s worked hasn’t it?  The title isn’t that far off from what this month’s challenge is.  In the verdant seasons, tree identification is much easier.  After all, deciduous trees are covered with their solar panels, namely leaves.  In these northern climes, those trees undress and bask nakedly from November through March.

So, how does one identify skeletal trees?  Well, the easy way is to ID them during the growing season, IMG_0166but that doesn’t help in February, now does it?  The first step I would suggest is to just walk around.  Carefully observe bark patterns and texture.  For instance, some say sugar maples have “peanut butter valleys.”  These would be light brown vertical striations between plates of bark.  Black cherry trees appear to have “burnt-potato-chip bark.”

Notice the shape the branches form: is it roundish? tall and narrow?  irregular?  Simply looking with intent at trees is going to acclimate your eyes to patterns that exist all around your neighborhood.

The second way (and for full disclosure I use it all the time) is to use a guide much like this one.  A guide like this one moves you to attend to branches and bark, since the easiest identifier has gone missing.

It does take more effort to ID trees in the winter, especially mature trees which don’t have branches close to your level for examination.  Still, with some effort it can be done.

So, take a walk outside–the fresh air is invigorating–and ogle some naked trees.  You’ll be surprised at what you might learn. IMG_0290

Challenge #6 Winter: answered

We had a rather short, but warm stretch this week with a record breaking day at 60 degrees, but the snow and cold are comfortably ensconced once again.  The regular winter inhabitants in these parts of SE Michigan include tufted titmice, juncos, nuthatches, cardinals, hairy, downy, and red-breasted woodpeckers, fox and gray squirrels, and probably rabbits and raccoons, but I haven’t spotted any of those recently.  The cold limits the variety, but it’s still there, for those with eyes to see.  Have your oaks and beech trees lost their last shreds of leafy dignity?  My beech still clings to a few.  What’s winter like where you live?

Challenge #3 Answered

Y’know, it’s OK to post something about your trees; truly it is.  Anyway, my shagbark hickory is now naked.  The Siberian or Chinese elm is about 80% leafless; the American beech in the backyard has lost its crown (strange how that tree loses its leaves from the top down) and the remaining leaves are almost all copper-colored now.  I haven’t paid attention to the mulberry tree in the back, but that’s probably ready for winter now too.  We’ve seen many windy and cool days this fall which made up for such a dry summer.  I was pleasantly surprised at the plethora of color.

Oak leaves in my second backyard (captured mid-October).

So, what did you find?  Quick, before all the leaves are gone.