“If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes”…. Mark Twain

Mark Twain may just have easily said the same of Nova Scotia this past month. In the last few weeks we have experienced sunny days, warm enough to sit out on the deck, and blue skies, bright enough to bring the robins and chipmunks out of hibernation. There have been days we’ve let the wood stove go out and opened the windows wide to let the sunshine in. But those days were interspersed with fierce blizzards and wicked ice storms. Cold grey days and nor’easterly gales have left many of us winter weary and feeling cheated of spring. Finally the maple sap is flowing; that’s always a good sign that spring is here.

Silver Laced Wyandotte and Rhode Island Red hens
Just hanging around waiting for spring!

Spring hails the start of the maple sap flow; one of nature’s true phenomena. In his book, ‘The Hidden Life Of Trees’, Peter Wohlleben tells us that, through osmosis, sugary water makes it’s way from the roots to the top of the tree. When you measure water pressure in trees it’s highest shortly before the leaves open in spring. At this time of year, when the nights are still cold but the days are warm, water (sap) shoots up the trunk with such force that if you place a stethoscope against the tree, you can actually hear it.

Collecting maple sap
Collecting maple sap

By inserting a spile into maple trees, the sap can be collected in a bucket, over 12 to 20 days, usually between early March and late April, according to the region. I’ve never listened with a stethoscope, but I can know that when conditions are right, I can collect 20 litres of maple sap in a little over 24 hours. That doesn’t happen very often and the change in weather this month, every few minutes, has meant that the sap flow has been intermittent. Running freely one day, frozen the next. Initially, this erratic flow seemed like a hindrance to making this year’s maple syrup. But I was mistaken.

Freezing the maple sap to speed the process.

While waiting for the weather to make up its mind, I’ve been reading ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer, where she tells the story of how the early settlers would speed up the process by freezing the maple sap to concentrate the sugar. The ratio of water to sugar is 40:1. The early settlers poured the sap into wide wooden troughs, allowing the water to freeze overnight.  In the morning they would lift off the ice and discard it. The remaining sugar solution takes far less time and much less firewood to evaporate the water, leaving a sweet, amber syrup to pour on pancakes.

Evaporating maple sap on a burner made from a metal barrel.
Evaporating maple sap on a burner fashioned from a metal barrel.

It seems that those first lovers of maple syrup knew what they were doing, as this method is now known as freeze concentration and is being experimented with for commercial production. So now I’m happy to see the maple sap freeze in the buckets, knowing that I’ll be spending much less time stoking the fire.