A friend was over with her little ones last month and we pulled our some puzzles for the children to play with. A wooden puzzle depicting the four seasons was first out of the box.
Her son looked the puzzle over and then looked then up at his mom, a quizzical look on his face.
"Mama, this 'seasons' puzzle has only four seasons. Not five (like we have)."
My friend looked at me and said simply, "Sugar bush. It's our fifth season."
Oh my, yes.
Sugar bush. Maple season. Tapping time. The brief, elusive season that hovers between winter and spring. It's really not winter anymore, nor it it yet spring. It's very much it's own.
Sugar bush is fleeting – and oh, so sweet.
This weekend the four of us felt the weather shifting and grabbed our mapling supplies. Still unpacking from our trip, maple time wouldn't wait.
It's is the shortest of all. And we didn't want to miss a single drop.
Care to join us in this sweetness? It's easier than you might think.
How to tap a Maple Tree
1. Gather supplies
All you need is a tap (or 'spile'), a hammer, a drill with the proper sized bit, a bucket and lid. (And a tree, of course.)
In years past we modified random buckets by cutting a hole in the side and adding a loop of wire to suspend it from the spile. A few years back we bought proper maple pails, found locally and made by these folks in Canada.
Either option works. Ideally you will have a lid to keep out bits of bark and leaves, but this, too, can be improvised.
2. Find your tree
Sugar maples are best but in a pinch we've even tapped our birch trees, a Norway maple, some silver maples and box elders. Sugar maple have the most sugar of all, but the others still make great syrup. (Surprising but true!)
You will, of course, need some basic skills in tree identification. If this isn't your forte ask a competent friend to help, visit a local nature center for assistance (bring in a branch from your tree if you wish), or get a simple tree ID book like this winter tree field guide from your library. Or use this fabulously simple on-line key in the summer and mark your tree for next year.
Maples are – in my opinion – one of the easiest deciduous trees to identify in any season because of their opposite branching, but if you're unsure get help!
To tap your trees, first pick the right time of year. Tap in late winter/early spring when the daytime temperatures are above freezing but the nights are still cold. This is when the sap begins to rise and is the only time to capture a bit for yourself. (Here in Western Wisconsin that's usually late February or early March.)
Tap by choosing a drill bit the same diameter or a smidge narrower than your spile near the widest part before the hook. (Usually 5/16" or 7/16".) Drill a hole at chest height on the south (sunny) side of the tree at a slight angle downward from the trunk. (Your bit will be angled upward just a touch.)
Drill to the depth required for your spile. You can mark that spot on your drill with a piece of masking tape if you wish.
Insert the spile into the hole and tap firmly into place with your hammer. On a good warm day the sap will begin to flow immediately with a few satisfying drips into your pail (or mouth).
Hang your bucked and place your lid.
Large trees can handle two (possibly three) taps, depending on size. More information on tree diameter for multiple taps can be found here.
4. Check your pails
Each day check your pails and empty any collected sap. I pour mine through a fine mesh towel to remove any bits that have found their way into the sap. If there is a puck of ice on the top of your pail you can remove and discard it. It is almost all water and you can reduce your cooking time by pulling it out.
5. Cook your sap
If you are cooking outside or if you aren't collecting much sap, gather it in a large pail or pan until you have enough to cook down, being sure to keep your collected sap cold while you gather more. Cook your sap withing seven days to be sure it is still fresh.
Cook down your syrup on a fire outside or - for small amounts – on your kitchen stove.
It takes 50-plus quarts of sap to make a quart of syrup so that's a lot of boiling and evaporation!
Pour your sap into a large, preferably wide cooking pot. As the sap cooks down it begins to darken and become sweet. As this concentration occurs transfer your syrup to a smaller pan to prevent scorching.
Pour your homemade maple syrup over yogurt, porridge, ice cream – anything that needs a bit of sweetness. There might be nothing finer in your pantry than this. What a perfect way to welcome the sweeter, warmer days of spring as they rush in.
Happy tapping, friends!