February 2017


Amateur and professional drinkers of wine and coffee are very familiar with the flavors that are used to evaluate the complex tastes of those beverages. Grass, cinnamon, peach, and almond are among the dozens of compounds that can found among the sensory description wheels or charts for wine and coffee. But did you also know that those words are also used by the maple syrup industry?

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Counter Culture Coffee                 Aromaster                    Agriculture Canada

Maple sugar and syrup production has been a part of northeastern North American culture since before the Europeans arrived en masse in the 17th century. The native indigenous peoples passed their methods down from generation to generation through oral history and traditions. In fact, the methods that they used to gather sap and produce maple syrup were so basic that they have changed little in essence into the 21st century. The Algonquians used stone tools to make the incisions into the trunk from which reeds were inserted which allowed the sap to run into birch buckets or scooped-out sections of a trunk. The sap was concentrated in much the same way that most cooking was done; by dropping heated stones into the liquid, raising the temperature to the point that steam carries off the excess water.

Laura Ingalls Wilder described the maple sugaring process in her book The Little House in the Big Woods. Chronicling her life in 1870s Wisconsin, Mrs. Wilder recounted the late winter tapping of the maple trees and the making of maple syrup which they called ‘sugaring off’. The buckets of maple syrup supplied them with a sweetening agent for the next year, especially in the very basic meal of ‘hasty pudding’; cornmeal cooked in water to a thick mush that was sweetened with maple syrup. The syrup was also boiled past the syrup stage until it crystallized, poured into pans, and allowed to cool into rounds of maple sugar.

There have been developments in the past four centuries that have streamlined and improved production. Wooden taps and then metal spiles replaced reeds, wooden buckets were replaced with metal buckets, plastic bags, or even tubing that allowed the sap to be collected from many trees at a time into a holding vat. When maple trees are 30-40 years old they are large enough to tap, and can support 2-3 taps each, depending on the diameter of the trunk.

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Once collected, sap must be reduced a great deal, from 20 to 50 gallons to a single gallon of syrup. It must be boiled carefully so that sugar crystals do not form. Once boiled in large kettles, sap is now heated in flat, open pans that increase the rate of evaporation and speed up the process.

I attended a maple sugaring workshop sponsored by the Arboretum at Connecticut College this past weekend and get a first-hand view of some of the techniques. The first step in maple sugaring is tree identification and Jim Luce, our instructor, gave us some tips. Tree identification during the winter takes a bit more investigation than it does in the summer when the distinctive, palmate, simple, opposite leaves (seen the Canadian flag?) and samara (helicopters) are present. However, few species, maple among them, have the distinctive opposite buds and branches. Sugar maple bark is gray, going from smooth to furrowed and its twigs are light brown with scattered white lenticels. The buds are red or brown and pointed and the sap is clear, not cloudy.

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The most desirable maple species are Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Red maple (A. rubrum), and Black maple (A. nigrum) due to a 2-5% sugar content although syrup can be made from walnut (Juglans) and birch (Betula) sap also. Birch sap runs a bit later in the season so that you could collect that in April and make syrup after the maple season has ended. Tapping of maples starts in early February once temperatures are above 32° F during the day and below that at night and generally runs for 4-6 weeks.

Rather than describe the tapping process step by step, here is a video of the workshop that was held on a cold and breezy day:

 

It was an enjoyable experience, especially the tasting of the finished product poured over ice cream! We sampled a commercially prepared Grade A syrup that was darker in color but less tasty than the sap that Jim boiled down from sap collected yesterday.

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The newly cooked sap had definite vanilla undertones and was sweeter with being cloying. Oh yes, I have a new appreciation for the complexities of maple syrup and for the cost of a quality product now that I have seen the amount of work that goes into it. Pancakes, anyone?

Susan Pelton

As a plant pathologist, I enjoy a little plant disease humor on the rare occasions when I run across some.  On a recent visit to the Plant Pathology department at Cornell University while there for a workshop, I saw this fun list of

TOP TEN things PLANT PATHOLOGISTS know (slightly revised and with pictures added):

toptenplantpathologistfacts-cornell

I worked on trying to put this right on the blog for a long time but the photos and text wouldn’t line up right.  So if you click on the link, you can see it the way it should be!

Thanks for visiting!

J. Allen

Special occasions and holidays like Valentine’s Day inspire many of us to send flowers to those we hold with love and affection. In selecting the contents of your bouquet, make it especially memorable by choosing flowers that carry with them symbolic messages of endearment. Many flowers and plants have been associated with certain emotions, feelings and attributes throughout the centuries. This romantic notion was most apparent during the Victorian era with its accompanying publication of The Language of Flowers.

To the Victorians, each type of flower conveyed a message which could be modified by blossom color and also its stage of development. By combining different flowers in nosegays or bouquets, you could strengthen, diminish or deliberately misconstrue your floral communication.

A red rose, perhaps the most sought after flower come Valentine’s Day, signifies love, pure and ardent. White roses as well as most other white flowers often stand for truth and purity, while a yellow rose represents jealousy or mistrust. Not all yellow flowers convey negative messages; yellow tulips mean hopeless love, yellow violets, rural happiness and yellow jasmine, grace and elegance.

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Red rose bouquet from UConn blooms,

Members of the pinks family including carnations are associated with betrothal, marriage and fidelity. In fact, at one time, their clove scented flowers were used to flavor the wine given to brides following the wedding ceremony. Clusters of phlox blossoms were frequent components of Victorian tussie-mussies. Delightfully scented, they were also a symbol of sweet dreams and implied a proposal of marriage. Because of its clinging habit, English ivy too, is symbolic of fidelity and married love.

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Carnation arrangement. Photo by dmp.

Otherwise known as heart’s ease, love-in-idleness and tickle-my-fancy, the pansy, as its French name ‘pensee’ suggests, stands for romantic thoughts. You are telling someone special ‘I am thinking of you’. It was also thought that an infusion of pansy leaves would cure a broken heart. A bouquet of jonquils says ‘I desire a return of affection’ while the buds of a moss rose are a confession of love.

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Pansies by Lisa Rivers.

A white daisy signifies innocence, a white chrysanthemum, truth. Forget-me-nots speak for themselves as does love-lies-a-bleeding. Lilacs were symbolic of chastity, purity, innocent beauty and immortality. Stocks meant lasting beauty.

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Daisies by dmp.

Pink larkspur represents fickleness, purple larkspur, haughtiness. Snapdragons indicated presumption while a rose-scented geranium showed preference.

Herbs, foliage plants, and even many fruits had symbolic meanings. Rosemary is for remembrance, bay stood for constancy or immortality, and ferns for fascination. Giving your love a peach meant ‘Your qualities, like your charms, are unequalled’. A pineapple says ‘You are perfect’. An apple signifies what else but temptation!

For a long lasting floral conversation piece, make a nosegay or arrangement using dried flowers and plant materials. Add delicate scent by tying it with a grosgrain ribbon soaked in rose water and dried. A few drops of essential oil will also perfume your bouquet.

Start a new tradition with every bouquet you send. Spell out your message of love or friendship with floral elegance.

Dawn P

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Groundhog in field. pcooper photo

February brings groundhog day at its beginning and some longer day-length and light at the month’s end. It is always a little exciting to watch silly weather-men and women  with a groundhog waiting to see if it will cast a shadow on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it is believed he will go back to sleep for we will have six more weeks of winter.  We in Connecticut should know it is still too early for this hibernating animal to wake from its winter slumber deep underground if it were left to its own in a natural environment. Thankfully we have a few nature centers caring for rescued animals that would otherwise not survive in the wild. Some have a groundhog or two to share with the public on this most ceremonious day of weather prediction. And the annual tradition continues with much lightheartedness bringing needed smiles and community, and a 50 50 chance of accuracy.

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Punxsutawney Phil (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

How they get the groundhog to participate is a great feat, because after all, it is a wild animal most people encounter feeding on lawn and gardens, or on sides of highways in open land. They are those brown, ground hugging mounds moving in the grassy areas along the roads.

Other names for groundhog are woodchuck and whistle pig. They do make a whistling sound when alarmed and a ‘chuck chuck’ sound both inspiring their common names. Their Latin name is Marmota monax and are a rodent in the squirrel family. These ground dwelling rodents dig tunnels two to five feet deep and up to 30 feet long. They usually produce one generation per year in litter numbers of two to six born in April or May. At six weeks of age, young are free to forage for themselves and leave the den on their own. That is a lot of woodchucks for one small, suburban lawn!

I personally have a running summer battle with a family of groundhogs determined to scale the fence surrounding my vegetable garden and eat just about everything I grow.  Fencing should be left loose and angled out and away from the garden so the climbing animal will fall out rather than into the garden. Bury the bottom of the fence 1 1/2 to  2 feet deep to prevent digging under the fence. Stringing an electric fence wire four to six inches above the ground in addition to the fence will give the animal a shock, providing it with a lesson not to return. Animal repellents of hot pepper, garlic, sulfur and predator urine can all be sprayed around areas you want to protect. These usually need to be reapplied after hard rain. It is illegal to put out any poison which targets woodchuck. Trapping is allowed according to the Connecticut DEEP, with relocation onto State managed wildlife areas or forests. However, DEEP does not recommend relocating nuisance animals as it is very stressful for the animal. It will not have housing, food or water and usually ends in death of the animal. DEEP recommends humane euthanization.

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Woodchuck in trap. Pamm Cooper photo

Groundhog, woodchuck or whistle pig, whatever you call them, they can do a lot of damage. Below is a picture of a pretty old weeping cherry tree on the great lawn of the UConn campus in Storrs. I have been watching the steady decline and eventual death of this specimen tree due to the extensive tunneling and den building, excavating under the roots. There are large soil mounds and a wide hole giving access and  protection. UConn has many such areas providing shelter to the ever-growing population of these animals, which can be common place to see all over campus. Stepping in one of holes can also be a danger. Farmers have long battled with woodchucks making holes in pasture and field, especially dangerous for horses and cows which could break a leg.

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Death of weeping cherry due to woodchuck tunneling under root system. Pamm Cooper photo.

If control measures of fences, repellents and traps still leave you with a groundhog problem, there is always the option of hiring a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator licensed by the State. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nwco/nwcodir.pdf

-Carol Quish