As gardeners anxiously wait for spring, some hardcore nature buffs are already tromping through the woods with bucket in hand.
David Horst, horticulturalist at Bickelhaupt Arboretum, is one of those nature geeks. He, along with family and friends, has been tapping maple trees and making maple syrup for as long as he can remember.
“Making maple syrup has been a family tradition for over 45 years. I remember tagging along behind my parents when they built the shelter over the maple cooker decades ago.”
This rough-cut wooden structure with a tin roof is just enough protection from the elements for a functional sugar shack. Just off the gravel road, visitors walk through the woods along a meandering stream to the rustic building that sits waiting for spring. Now is the time when maple trees start to come to life as the sun reaches higher into sky.
John Horst, David’s father, recalls, “Back in the 1970s I would help Bill Wise, an old farmer who lived up the road, make maple syrup in the spring and sorghum syrup in the fall. He was the one who got my wife, Sherry, and me interested years ago, and we have been making syrup ever since.”
In the winter, spigots are made out of elderberry stems. Elderberry bushes, which grow wild in the ditches and along the woods, have soft center pith in the stem. This pith is pushed out with a steel rod, making a natural giant straw. The straws are cut 6 inches long and whittled down at one end so each fits snuggly into the holes that are drilled into the tree.
One to two holes are drilled into large healthy sugar maple trees right before the anticipated spring sap flow. Holes are drilled into the tree about chest high so the bucket hangs waist high off the ground. This height makes it easier to lift the full buckets off the hook to carry back to the cooker. Bucket after bucket will be hauled down out of the woods every day.
The sap will then be boiled down into golden sweet syrup that only nature can provide.
“It can be challenging some years to make good syrup,” says David. “We try to keep the sap clean in the buckets. On windy or rainy days the sap can turn cloudy. If this happens it is dumped and we have to start all over again. Weather is the driving force in making the sap flow.”
Dan Parks, who helps every year, said, “We watch the weather forecast closely. The best sap flow is when it is calm, sunny and the day temperatures are above freezing and the night temps are below freezing. Weather in the spring can change quickly so we have to be on our toes.”
Sherry added, “On a good year we will cook down two batches, which will produce about 8 to 10 gallons of syrup. When the syrup is done I will heat it up on the kitchen stove and can it in pint jars. The syrup has a long shelf life in the sealed jars. Once opened there is no shelf life since the family eats it so fast on hot pancakes and waffles!”
It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. Canada produces 80 percent of the world’s supply of maple syrup. The top four producing states in the United States are Vermont, New York, Maine and Wisconsin. Members of the maple family (Acer), which include boxelder trees and some members of the birch family, will also produce good sap for syrup.
Margo Hansen is the director of programs at Bickelhaupt Arboretum and host of “The Great Green Garden Show” on KROS Radio.