Move Over, Maple

by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson

It’s a common sight in the early spring in woodlands around the Upper Midwest and beyond: happy people in cold-weather gear hiking from tree to tree—sometimes through deep snow—drilling small holes into the sides of sugar maples and collecting the sap that begins to flow. Much of the moisture content of the gathered sap is boiled away to leave behind delicious sugary remnants—syrup! It’s a wonderful tradition, a wonderful time of year, and in the end, it makes a wonderful and delicious product.

But here’s a question: Since all trees produce sap, and all sap contains sugar, why do we tap only sugar maples? Make no mistake: sugar maples are called sugar maples for a reason. The famous sap-giver produces a high volume of sap and it contains the highest sugar-to-water ratio—allowing for a maximum amount of syrup per tree. Yield can vary a lot depending on climate and weather, but generally about 40 gallons of raw maple sap produce 1 gallon of syrup; on other tree species, much more sap is needed to make syrup.

That said, there are other tree species that can successfully be used for tapping—and there are reasons to give these trees a try. Maybe you don’t have a sugar maple to tap or maybe you want to supplement your current syrup harvest with the sap from other trees you have available. Trees take years to mature to the point where tapping can take place, so it makes sense to take advantage of what already exists on your property—even if they’re not industry-standard sugar maples.

Black Walnut
While nuts and beauty are why you planted a black walnut, these trees can pull double duty as trees for tapping. In addition to their sweet sap (some say black walnut produces a slightly “nutty” flavor that nearly keeps pace with sugar maples in sugar content), black walnuts grow fairly rapidly, so they might make a nice addition to maples. There aren’t many studies comparing black walnut sap yields to sugar maples, but you should probably expect less volume—but still plenty of flavor.

Butternut
Sometimes called a white walnut, this species is closely related to the black walnut, and is another good candidate for tapping. It has a flavor similar to black walnut syrup—nutty and sweet.

Birch
Birch (and alder) trees can make a fun addition to your family’s syrup production. Besides their attractive coloring and unique bark, birch trees also produce a decent amount of sap. Be warned though: your birch syrup will have a much more savory flavor than maple syrup. One upside to using birch trees is that they require a higher temperature than sugar maples to get their sap running, so their sap season may begin just as sugar maples are winding down—an ideal way to extend your sap-harvesting season. Birch tapping has a long history in Europe and Asia, and cold-hardy birch trees are quite popular as tapping trees in Alaska. Why not give them a try, too?

Sycamore
Sap from sycamore trees is at the low end of the sugar-content scale, but the flavor of the syrup is sometimes compared to butterscotch or caramel, and it tends to increase in flavor later in the season. Sycamore sap production is more work—you may be looking at boiling upwards of 100 gallons of sycamore sap to achieve a single gallon of syrup. Still, if you have the trees and the time, it can be well worth the effort to obtain this uniquely flavored sap and create a rarely experienced syrup.

Other Maples

In addition to the unequaled sugar maple, these maple varieties can be used for tapping—if you have them on your property, go for it!

  • Black maples – A very close relative to sugar maples, black maples make wonderful tapping trees and often crossbreed with sugar maples to the point where it can be difficult to ascertain the difference.
  • Red maples – Not as “sugary” as sugar maples, but a serious contender.
  • Silver maples – Weaker sugar content, and the taste may suffer when the buds begin to appear.
  • Box elder – Sometimes described as a “butterscotch” syrup flavor, it requires around 60 gallons of sap for a gallon of syrup.

No matter what tree species you try, remember to have fun and enjoy the experiment! Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a new syrup flavor you really enjoy.

 

Samantha and Daniel Johnson are a brother-sister writing team and the authors of several books, including Garden DIY, (CompanionHouse Books, 2020).

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HOW TO TAP

Be choosy when selecting individual trees for tapping. The best trees are at least 12 inches in diameter, although some folks experiment with tapping trees that are smaller than this—particularly birch trees that have shorter lifespans. Avoid any trees that have been exposed to pesticides and select trees that appear to be healthy overall—watch out for mushrooms, old wounds or similar imperfections and move on to a different tree if you see them. Tapping will not harm a mature, healthy tree.

Tapping takes place when the sap begins flowing up and down the trunk. This is caused by a difference in pressure inside the tree and the atmosphere outside. Location determines when this happens, because it requires warm spring days (well above freezing temperatures) combined with nights that are still cold and well below freezing. It could be late February or early April, depending on the weather. Once the cold nights end, the sap-tapping season is over.

To tap a tree, use a drill with a small bit (5/16 inch and 7/16 inch are popular sizes) to make a hole about 2 inches deep and about 3 feet high on the trunk. Place the hole on the sunny side of the tree where the sap is warmed during the day. Tap in a spile (a narrow metal pipe with a spout) that fits the hole you drilled, and hang a collection bag or covered bucket on the spile. Sap should start dripping immediately. On a good day, with a good tree, your container can fill amazingly fast!

Small amounts of sap can be boiled on the stove until it reaches syrup consistency and taste. It’s then filtered to remove sediment and stored. However, boiling produces a sticky steam and larger amounts of sap are usually boiled outside. For detailed instructions, see tapmytrees.com.

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