‘Tis the season for sapflow, if you’re a tree. Nights below freezing and days above freezing signal that it’s time to send nutrients from roots to treetops to bud out. This is the sugariest sap of the year, which is why those interested in making syrup are getting busy.
I learned to tap trees a couple of weeks ago, at a new favorite place, the Piedmont Wildlife Center. Trees that can be tapped for syrup include maples, black walnut, and birch. Syrup-making is a labor of love–the ROI is pretty low. Sugar maples have the most sugar content, so boiling the watery sap down to syrup happens faster than with any of these other trees’ saps. But if you’re in love with unique, local, can’t-get-it-in-a-store flavors, as I am, then it’s well worth your effort.
A bit of upfront myth-dispelling is in order: Trees heal pretty quickly from holes poked in them for tapping. To a big tree, this is a super small hole. It’s not that different from you having blood drawn for a blood test. At some point in the past, people starting plugging up holes from tapping or tree increment coring (for tree ring research), using a variety of materials and chemicals to plug up the hole. But comparisons of plugged and not-plugged trees show that it doesn’t really do anything to help the tree (See here and here and here), although it probably does make the person feel better. It’s generally best to let the tree heal on its own.
Among southern trees, untapped resources and untapped knowledge remain. In the South, where the tapping season is shorter and less profitable, there are trees that no one seems to know if they make good syrup or not. I am looking forward to experimenting with tapping sweetgum (abundantly available in my backyard). The dried sap has been used as chewing gum in the past, so we know it’s sweet and edible. I found a page that said they are tappable and that the syrup is good, but little info on when to tap. This past Saturday, it was a perfect day for traditional tapping: below freezing at night and up in the 50s during the day. I tried tapping one of the sweetgums in my backyard. So far, epic fail… but I remain hopeful. These trees may have a later sapflow on warmer days. Stay tuned for the next installment of my backyard experiment. If you’d like to participate, please leave comments on how your sweetgum tapping experiment goes. And if you’ve tried this before, by all means, let us know in the comments!