Maple sugaring


“The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within.”

– William C. Bryant

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Great Blue Heron in an open area of an otherwise icy pond February 25 2017

It feels, temperature-wise, that we are on the cusp of spring, and certainly the landscape is responding to the warmer and longer of February. Right now we are seeing spring try to break out a little early in some areas. It may still snow, of course, but maple trees are tapped at the usual time and birds have begun their morning and evening territorial calls in response to longer daylight periods. Skunk cabbages have been poking their heads up for a while, but it is still winter, and we may see temperatures go down to a more normal range for this time of year.

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Around the state, the spring blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis is blooming in areas along the Connecticut shoreline and further north in sunny areas. Native to the Ozark Plateau which ranges from southern Missouri through parts of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, this witch hazel does well along gravelly or rocky stream banks and moist or dry soils in the landscape. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate some shade. Height is normally around eight feet as a mature plant, and about as wide.

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Hamamelis vernalis blooming on campus at Storrs February 26, 2017

We can tell where the native willows are now as they are starting to bloom now. Other spring bloomers, like the star and southern magnolias, have swollen flower buds. Here’s hoping that we do not have a repeat of last year, when snow and freezing temperatures in the low teens followed and destroyed the flower buds of many of our fruit and ornamental trees.

Whitlow grass, Draba verna, is flowering in sunny areas especially where the soil in lawns has open areas. Whitlow grass is not a grass at all, but a member of the mustard family, and it is one of the first herbaceous plants to flower before spring. It has tiny white flowers that may be mistaken for a chickweed, but this plant arises from a basal rosette. It is a winter annual and can form large mats that are evident in spring when the white flowers appear. Non- native, this plant has been around for over one hundred years.

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Whitlow grass and syrphid fly February 28, 2017

As ice melts from inland ponds, migrating ducks and wading birds may appear at any time. In late February, a great blue heron was in a little open area on a pond otherwise covered in soft ice. Ring- necked ducks and hooded merganzers have been seen also at inland ponds that are along their northern migration route. Song sparrows and cardinals are already singing their spring songs- song sparrows sing off and on all day perched on the tops of shrubs or small trees

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A male song sparrow just finished his song from atop a mountain laurel in the wild

Spring peepers were heard the last week of February when the weather was very warm during the day. I have not heard any since, though. Painted turtles have been sunning themselves on rocks and floating logs during the warmer days as well. And chipmunks are up and running. Woodchucks are also out and about, which is early for them. Unless there are some herbaceous plants greening up, they will probably head down below ground and extend their winter nap.

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Painted turtle getting its first sun bath of 2017

If you have any birdhouses that need cleaning, do it now. Although I have seen bluebirds build a nest on top of an old one in a nest box, which is the exception rather than the rule. Phoebes may be arriving any time, so keep an eye open for this early migrater. They have a distinctive call which you can hear by visiting Cornell University’s link: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id

Snow melt and recent winter rains have helped some vernal pools recover from the drought. Streams are also flowing with more water than they had last summer and fall. Check out vernal pools for wood frog and spotted salamander eggs before the end of March.

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Clark Creek in Haddam off Rte 154 has significant flow after February snow melt

And if a garden has been mulched over perennials and they have started growing, do not remove leaves or mulch as that has insulated the plants from the cold. Uncovering them too soon may invite damage if the weather returns to more seasonable temperatures below freezing. Winter is probably not over yet, but it will be soon. That cheers me up considerably.

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Pussy willow

Pamm Cooper                                                  all photos © 2017 Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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