This weekend was absolutely phenomenal in Vermont. Back when I lived in a dry part of the world, a day without clouds was just a day I had to carry extra water and apply more sunscreen under the glaring, hot, hazy sky. In this part of the world, cloud free days are truly rare, and sometimes accompany Arctic blasts of subzero air. Instead, Saturday was a cloudless warm day, and Sunday’s scattered clouds did little to block the spring sun. For those of you who are thinking it isn’t spring yet, “Meteorological Spring” starts March 1st.. and Vermont has so far to go between a -20 night in midwintter and an 85 degree day in July, that spring, in a sense, is long.
Above: View from near the peak of Elmore Mountain… expanses of slushy snow, not a cloud to be seen.
On Sunday we walked along a line of sugar maple trees lining a snowmobile path.
Maple sap runs best when the days are warm and the nights are cold, and this weekend was a perfect match. The high on Saturday was around 49, the low that night around 20. Now it was nearing 50. The wet snow crunched underfoot, but when we paulsed to listen, the song of birds and the pecking of a woodpecker or sapsucker was accompanied by a *plunking* sound. It was the sound of drops of sap plopping into buckets of varying sap depth. The effect was musical and a unique early sound I can’t recall ever hearing before. It takes about 40 parts sap to make one part syrup, so the symphony we heard was probably only sufficient to produce one delicious drop of syrup. Still, with hundreds of trees and quickly lengthening days, quite a bit of sap was due to be produced from this wide row of trees between farm fields.
Larger operations eschew the buckets for a system of vacuum-fed tubes. Miniature watersheds of converging tubes lead downhill to a vat making the task of collecting all that sap that much easier.
Maple syrup is a rare example of a forest permaculture crop being used by the general public. It is remarkably sustainable. Unless overtapped, the maples are unharmed by the process, which only takes place for a few weeks. Perhaps the loss of sap would put the trees at a disadvantage if competing with beech and birch trees for resources, but most ‘sugarbushes’ are managed to maintain fairly widely spaced maple trees with few other trees present. The trees that are removed, as well as any maple tree that succumbs to disease or old age, can be burned to boil the sap. When the sugaring season is over, aside from road and tree maintenance, the sugarbushes are left alone, so if the landowner does not post no trespassing signs the land is also available for hiking, skiing, deer hunting, and other activities. Compare this to a field of genetically engineered corn clones producing high fructose corn syrup. Maple can’t provide ALL the sugar needs for the country (too bad!) and moving into intact old forests and turning them into sugarbushes would cause harmful ecological effects, but Vermont is full of young forests regrowing on old farm fields and being choked by invasive species. Many of these could be converted to maple syrup production without much loss of habitat or other ecosystem values.
I’m not sure what this sign was cautioning against.
I think the potential for sugarbush use goes beyond delicious syrup. Many other wild edibles such as wild leeks, edible mushrooms, and in some cases fiddleheads thrive under sugar maple trees. I haven’t seen these encouraged in sugarbushes, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be as they aren’t going to compete significantly with the maples for light or water. A well-managed sugarbush has the potential to produce syrup in the early spring, edible spring ephemerals in the late spring, berries in the summer, and venison in the fall, all while retaining full tree cover.
If by some chance you haven’t tried real maple syrup, do yourself a favor and try some. Get the real stuff – it is worth the money. Anything that contains corn syrup or even honey is not the same. And… I don’t want to give away any local secrets, but just so you know, the ‘grades’ of maple syrup only refer to the color of the syrup, not the quality. It’s worth giving the less conventional varieties a try, though they can be hard to come by outside New England and southeastern Canada (despite my pride in local Vermont products I will admit the Canadian syrup is delicious too). It is also possible to tap some species of birch, as well as red maple, but they have lower sugar content and require more boiling. I’ve also heard rumors of a hickory syrup, but have heard that the process is different from producing maple sap and I’ve never tried it. Don’t try tapping a conifer or an oak tree.
Above: good food and shelter for wildlife, good timber, beautiful and ecologically important white pine tree… but disgusting sap.
Another North Country surprise: during the cold early spring nights, the sap flow slows, but on small broken branches of maple trees small icicles can form overnight. These taste sweeter than the straight sap (which isn’t very sweet until boiled) and can be enjoyed like a mildly-sweetened early spring popsickle. But, make sure you get your tree ID right. If you accidentally taste a Norway maple or box elder icicle you may not be pleased. (though I do not know of any tree species in New England that could produce a poison sapsickle).
Long ago, the Native Americans in California had systems somewhat similar to the sugarbush set up – oak savannahs with acorns in the fall, many edible wildflower seeds and bulbs in the spring, berries and fruits in the summer, and abundant wildlife to hunt all year long, not to mention many materials used for basket making. Sadly, while the Native American cultures do continue to survive, their land management practices have for the most part ceased. I hope in the near future someone tries a similar system in California comparable to our working forests here.