Take a drive around Nova Scotia and you’re sure to notice old homes and farmsteads with an avenue of maple trees leading to the front door. Were the trees planted because the old farmers enjoyed seeing the red leaves in the fall? Perhaps, they enjoyed the cooling effect that a large, leafy tree creates in the summer? Casting shade onto the verandah making a cool spot to sit after the day’s work was done. I’m more inclined to think that those old farmers enjoyed pouring maple syrup on their pancakes and didn’t want to have to go too far to collect the sap in the spring.
If you’re running a large sugar shack operation, trailing lines through the woods, then go ahead and tap the trees in the back quarter. For someone like me, who just wants a few jars of syrup for my pancakes on Sunday mornings, it’s great to have a few trees close to my front door. Besides, trees growing in open settings, where the crowns grow large without competition from other trees, generally produce more and sweeter sap than forest grown trees.
Making maple syrup is heavy work.
A bucket of sap is heavy; carrying two buckets is even heavier! It takes 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup. Our buckets each hold 15 litres of sap, weighing 15kg. In a good year, we’ll make about 18 litres of maple syrup. If you do the math, that’s 48 buckets; a total of 720 kg. Yes, those farmers were wise when they planted their maple trees close to the house. They may have liked the red leaves, but they liked their maple syrup more.
The right conditions for maple syrup.
Just before trees leaf out, they convert a large amount of starch to sugar. The high concentration of sugar in the xylem sap causes a flow of water from the soil into the tree by osmosis. As water flows into the tree, a positive pressure develops within the tree. When you insert a tap into the trunk that pressure will push the sap out through the spigot. This only happens in spring for a few weeks. Once the leaf buds start to break, the sap will be bitter rather than sweet.
Maple sap starts to run when the nights are still cold but the days are above freezing. Sunshine also helps, and it’s usually early to mid-March before the sap is flowing. Those conditions came far earlier this year. We tapped our trees on 14th February and I can’t help wondering why it was so early. Is it global warming that’s shifting the seasons or is it just something that happens once in a while?
Our driveway has five large maple trees, probably planted over 100 years ago. Sadly there is a gap where a sixth tree once stood. The farmhouse is also gone, but when I look at the trunks of the maples, I see the marks left by the old farmer hanging his buckets each spring. I would love to ask that old guy, “what was the earliest you ever tapped the trees?” “Did you ever hang out your buckets on Valentine’s Day?”