Syruping Season At Hand!

Preparing for the season’s first food harvest is a fun way to spend a few hours during winter’s deep freeze. Cornell University Cooperative and New York’s DNR have an excellent PDF “Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner.” Wikipedia features a comprehensive overview of syruping.

Trees of many maple species will flow sweet sap as soon as daytime temperatures rise into the high 30s while nights drop below the freezing point. That can happen in early February down South and six weeks later in Canada.

Syruping is fun, educational and a wonderful activity to share with children. It can be done far beyond the classic syruping regions of New England, Canada and the Lake States. We’ve been in touch with families from North Dakota to North Carolina who make maple syrup. We’ve made gallons in Iowa. All it takes is a tree or two of any maple species, the right weather and simple tools. When done properly, it doesn’t hurt the tree. Silver, sugar, black, and red maples all run sweet sap. So does the box elder, which is a true maple.

You’ll find past blogs on Winding Pathways that show how to make simple syruping equipment. Type maple syruping  in the search box at the bottom of the screen or click on this link. Almost everyone already has everything needed to make small quantities of syrup, but it’s easier and a bit more sanitary to use manufactured equipment.

Many companies sell syruping equipment, but most are geared to supply large commercial operations. Tap My Trees is different.  They sell easy-to-use equipment to folks wanting to tap a few backyard trees. Their website also includes helpful information on how to tap trees, collect sap, and boil it into syrup. Check it out!

Maple Syruping in the Back Yard

Winding Pathways has had fun this spring working with neighbor children on syruping. While the season here in Iowa has ended, in more northern and Eastern areas it is still in full swing. The 2015 syruping season may last longer in the north east because of the deep snow and continued cold. Take in the excitement of a syrup festival in your region and take time to tap a tree in your backyard. Things will pop fast, so go outside and play!

Maple Syruping With Kids

Anticipation!

Waiting for a drop of sap.

Maple syruping is captivating. Perhaps because the process is fascinating, it’s one of the first signs of spring or it conjures up childhood memories reading books about syruping or seeing old Currier and Ives prints of Native Americans or hearty pioneers sugaring off.

Alhough it’s a historic process, tapping trees and making syrup is a fun family activity and a great way to pique childhood curiosity about history and science. Syruping is a blend of botany, weather, science, history and all topped off with delicious eating.

Native Americans invented maple syruping long ago. Before honeybees were imported from Europe and sugar became a trade item maple syrup was THE ONLY sweetener they had. Typically Native Americans made maple sugar by slicing the bark of trees in late winter, catching what sap they could in bark or wooden containers and boiling the sap in large, hollowed out wooden containers by dropping fire-heated rocks into the liquid. They used this cumbersome method because until Europeans arrived they didn’t have metal. Syruping was plenty of work.

When Europeans settled along the Atlantic coast they quickly developed a taste for maple and supplied Natives with metal buckets, pans, axes and spiles that enabled them and European settlers to make syrup efficiently. It was the main American sweetener until a cane sugar tariff was lifted in the late 1800’s. Today maple syrup is a delicious, but expensive, luxury.

Modern producers use plastic tubes to channel sap from their sugarbush (maple grove) to their sugarhouse, where it’s processed into syrup by eliminating water in ultra-modern reverse osmosis machines followed by some boiling. It’s an efficient, but not nostalgic, process.

Making syrup from a backyard tree using old methods is fascinating fun. It’s now late winter. Soon days will be above freezing and sap will flow. Syruping season is upon us. Assuming there’s a maple tree in the yard most families have many of the items they need to make a small batch of syrup. Here’s how:

What you need: It’s simple. You need a maple tree or two of any species. Sugar, black, silver, red and European maples produce sweet sap. Even common box elders, which are true maples in disguise, yield sap that makes delicious syrup. The tree needs to be at least 10” in diameter but bigger ones are better. Other needs are:

• A drill and bit to create a 7/16th or ½ inch diameter hole three inches deep into the tree.
• A homemade or purchased spout, or “spile” as it’s called in syruping country.
• A container to catch sap. Plastic milk jugs work!
• A container to collect and store sap.
• A way to boil off about 40 gallons of water to make one gallon of syrup.

Where can syrup be made: Although New England, Canada and the Lake States are traditional syruping regions it can be made anywhere maples grow and the right weather conditions occur. Syruping is possible from Alabama to North Dakota, east to the Atlantic, and even from street trees in western towns.

When are trees tapped: Maples drip sap only when nights are below freezing followed by daytime temperatures above 32 degrees. Ideal conditions are several days in a row with clear, cold frosty nights followed by sunny warm days. Traditionally syruping starts around March first in the north but can be earlier down south. The season ends when sap stops dripping as night temperatures remain above freezing. The sap flow can be as short as four or five days or as long as six weeks. It all depends on the weather.

How to tap a tree: In late winter, just before warm days are expected, gather a drill, bucket and child and tap your backyard tree. If done properly it does no harm to the tree. A young 10” diameter maple is good for just one tap, but a 30” diameter veteran can support up to three taps. Use either an electric drill or be traditional and use a carpenter’s brace and bit. Drill at a slight upward angle two to three inches into the tree. A short piece of wire can be bent into a hook to drag wood chips out of the hole. Tap in the spout, or spile, and attach the bucket or milk jug to catch sap. If the weather is perfect sap will flow as soon as the drill passes through the bark.

Spiles and collection supplies can be purchased but here’s how to make your own:

Step One: Find a patch of sumac. These common shrubs often grow along roads. Cut off a three foot section about a half inch in diameter with pruning shears. Then cut it into pieces about four inches long. Sumac has thick soft pith. Either poke it out with a piece of stiff wire or drill it out to create a tube. Taper the end that will go into the hole in the tree by whittling with a pocket knife. Gently tap your spile into the hole.

Step Two: Use the pocket knife to cut a small hole in the neck of a clean gallon milk jug just above the handle. Slip the hole over the end of the spile. If you’ve done it right the jug will stay in place and is strong enough to hold a gallon of sap without pulling out of the tree.

If the weather’s right the jug will fill in just a couple of hours. Empty the sap into a storage container. It’s best to begin boiling right away but cold sap will keep a few days. But, there are other uses for maple sap than boiling into syrup. Fill a teacup with boiling sap instead of water and add a tea bag. The delicious beverage will have a hint of maple flavor. Some people drink sap as a spring tonic.

Step Three: Now comes processing. Nothing is added to sap to create syrup but about 40 parts of water must be evaporated to make one part syrup. It can be boiled in a saucepan over the kitchen stove, but that puts lots of sticky steam into the house. Boiling is best done outdoors over a wood fire or propane burner. Large shallow pans help speed boiling. Boil for several hours. The syrup is ready to eat when:

• It is golden colored with delicious sweetness.
• It slowly dribbles off a spoon dunked in hot syrup and suspended over the pan.
• It boils at seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter than boiling water.

Serious sugarmakers use more precise ways to tell when their syrup is done but these simple tests work for a small quantity. Finished syrup has sediment at the bottom of the container that looks like fine sand. It’s mostly calcium that’s perfectly fine to eat, but it can be filtered through cheese cloth to remove it. Refrigerate your precious syrup to prevent spoilage.

Commonly asked syruping questions:

Q. Will it hurt the tree? A. Only if the tree is overtapped. Only drill one hole in a 10” diameter tree. Up to three or four taps are fine in a massive maple.

Q. Do I plug the hole in the tree at the end of the season? A. Nope. Just pull out the spile. The tree will heal itself.

Q. How much syrup will one small tree with one tap produce? A. It all depends on the weather. During a long season a small tree could yield up to a half gallon of syrup, but during a short season it might yield only a cup or two. The long term average is about one quart of syrup per tap.

 Sources of Syruping Equipment and Information

Simply Google Maple Syruping and the computer’s screen will be filled with places to buy equipment and information on how to tap trees and make syrup. One of our favorite sites is Tap My Trees.

                                         Winding Pathways urges people to go outside and have fun. Few backyard                                                                         activities are as fun as making a batch of maple syrup from your own tree.

Delicious, Nutritious Stinging Nettles!

Although the northern and mid sections of the US are still bitterly cold and blanketed by inches of snow or ice, the south is beginning to warm up. That means the Greening of Springtime!

Following a long winter, a plate of steaming ultra-fresh greens from the yard is a delicious and nutritious treat.While most Americans consider stinging nettles weeds, Europeans enjoy them as an early spring food that is delicious, abundant and free for the picking.

Stinging nettles are one of the first plants to green up in early spring. They pop from the ground shortly after the snow melts and are ready to harvest about the time gardeners plant spinach, lettuce and other early cultivated greens. Winding Pathways is in Iowa, and we can count on harvesting nettles by early April, but the season starts sooner in warmer climates.

Nettles grow in all states except Hawaii and are common across much of Europe, Asia and even Northern Africa. They thrive in rich moist soil where there is partial sun. Seek them on the edge of suburban lawns and along rivers and streams. Nettles have high nutritional value and are sold in tablet or liquid form in vitamin shops.  As described in the International Journal of Food Science, nettle “Results show that processed nettle can supply 90%–100% of vitamin A (including vitamin A as β-carotene) and is a good source of dietary calcium, iron, and protein.”

Stinging nettles are named for numerous tiny spines that can inject a chemical into the skin. The sensation is uncomfortable but quickly fades and is not dangerous. Some people call the plant the “seven minute itch”.

Before collecting nettles, or any other wild food, for dinner be sure to positively identify the plant. Photos of nettles can be found online and are in nearly every wild food book.

There is a trick to harvesting them. Use gloves to protect the hands and scissors to snip off the top few tender leaves. Alternately, gently put your thumb and index finger just below the top few leaves and slide them up, pinching off the top, rinse and drop a few cups of them in water. A few minutes of boiling neutralizes the sting and results in a delicious high protein vegetable. Enjoy them covered with melted butter and a dash of vinegar. Save the water that nettles have been boiled in as a stock for soup or to drink as a delicious tea.

Pinching off tender young leaves encourages the plant to produce new ones, so by harvesting nettles from the same patch about every week the collecting season is prolonged. Don’t even try eating tough mature nettle leaves or stems. Early settlers once used the fibers of these rough stems to weave into a linen-like cloth.

By early summer in the upper Midwest, the nettles have “gone by”. But, we let them grow up because many species of butterflies are attracted to the yellow-greenish flowers of the nettles. Stinging nettles are a wonderful plant that we enjoy having on our property at Winding Pathways.

 

Wood Heat

Few cold winter evening experiences are as pleasant as sitting before the woodstove soaking up the warmth of a fire. That heat is essentially solar energy captured by the tree through photosynthesis on past summer days and released by fire in the dead of winter.

There are plenty of good reasons to consider wood heat and lots of reasons to forget it.  Heating with wood is a lifestyle that requires elbow grease to cut, move, split, and stack firewood. Wood needs to constantly be fed into the stove and ashes must be removed every couple of days. Although attractive and cozy, burning wood brings pieces of bark and dirt into the home. These can be downsides, but many people love to work with wood, and cutting and splitting are pleasures, not chores. Wood heat can also save heating money, especially if the fuel comes free.

We have two woodstoves at Winding Pathways. Years ago we ditched our romantic but inefficient fireplace and added a stove. They are much more efficient than fireplaces, meaning that more of the energy in a chunk of wood ends up making a room comfortable and less goes up the chimney.

Now is a great time to plan for wood heat for next winter. It takes time to buy a stove and have it installed.  To lay in next winter’s wood supply nearly a year in advance is critical.

The wood of living trees contains water that must be removed before it will burn well. Cut and split firewood stacked in a dry breezy place takes six months to a year for evaporation to remove enough water to transform it into efficient fuel. Late winter is a great time to process wood for next winter. We like to have all of next winter’s wood ready by the end of this March.

Wood is solidified sunshine mixed with minerals. Not all wood is created equally. The energy contained in a chunk is directly proportional to its weight. Dry hickory, for example, is about twice as heavy as the same size hunk of cottonwood and contains double the energy. To learn the heat value of different tree species simply Google Sweep’s Library Firewood BTU Comparison ChartsThis chart lists heat values of wood by both alphabet and heat (BTU) value.

Utah State University’s link includes heat value, ease of splitting, smoke emissions, how much a wood sparks and fragrance.

For example, a cord of Maple (Sugar) weighs 3740 pounds and contains 23.2 million BTUs. In contrast a cord of Cottonwood weighs 2040 pounds and contains 12.6 million BTUs of energy.  This relationship shows a homeowner would need process and store about twice as much Cottonwood as Sugar Maple to yield the same amount of heat.

Wood is usually sold by the cord or 128 cubic feet. That’s a stack eight feet long, four feet high and four feet deep. Hickory, black locust, white oak and sugar maple are the heaviest common woods of eastern and central North America. Cottonwood, basswood, aspen and most pines and spruces are the lightest. Elm, cherry, silver maple, hackberry and ash fall in between. In a normal Iowa winter we burn about three cords of a blend of oak, black cherry and maple. We’ve burned our share of “poorer” woods like cottonwood and box elder because it was available and we were short of heavier species. Lighter wood generates wonderful heat. It just takes a lot more of it than if we had hickory or oak. Wood is our main, but not only, heat source. We have a natural gas furnace and installed a gas insert into the old fireplace. Both work well and keep the house warm when we go on winter trips and are not around to feed wood into the stoves.