We have entered the micro-season of “Plants Show Their First Buds”. This is the last micro-season of the mini season of Rain Water. Each micro-season is about five days in length and highlights a slight change in the natural environment. The micro-seasons contained within Rain Water are:
- The Earth Becomes Damp (Feb 19-Feb 23)
- Haze First Covers the Sky (Feb. 24 – Feb 28)
- Plants Show Their First Buds (Mar 01 – Mar 04)
These seasons were established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai and are specific to Japan. However, just because the calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean it isn’t applicable to others. No matter where you live you can use these seasons as a starting point for your personal exploration into the natural world.
“Plants Show Their First Buds” describes that time of year when the snow begins to recede and there are signs of new growth. This may be the case for some of the places farther south in New England, but up in the northern realms there is still plenty of snow covering the ground. However, we do have our own indicator of spring: maple sugar season.
Maple Sugar Season
Maple sugar season is the time of year when the sap of the maple trees flows and it is collected to make maple syrup. Although this season is more dependent on the outside temperature than the days of the calendar, the season usually runs between mid-February to early April.
The ideal conditions for sugaring is when the nighttime temperatures are below freezing and the daytime temperatures rise above freezing. The change in temperature creates pressure in the tree that helps transfer the sap from the roots, to the trunk, and then to the upper branches.(1)
The History of Maple Sugaring
The story of maple sugaring starts with the indigenous people of North America. As the legend goes, an Iroquois Chief threw his tomahawk into a maple tree one night. In the morning before he left the camp, he pulled the tomahawk out of the tree. As the temperature increased, the tree sap began to drain into a cooking pot that rested at the base of the tree. Later, when it came time to prepare the evening meal, the Chief’s wife began collecting the cookware. She noticed that the tree sap filled the bottom of the bucket. Being curious about this liquid, she tasted it and found that it was slightly sweet. Thinking that this water would be a good addition to their meal, she used it as cooking water. By the time the Chief returned from his day’s hunt, the sweet smell of maple was drifting off the cooking fire. The sap had been cooked down to a light syrup, and the tradition of maple sugaring began.(2)
Sap Collection Techniques
There are two basic ways to collect the sap from a tree. You can either use a bucket and tap system, or a tap and tubing system.
The traditional way is to use taps, which are also known as “Spiles”. The sugarer goes out into his maple woods, or sugarbush, and drills holes into each tree he wants to tap. The general rule of thumb is that you want a tree that is at least 12 inches in diameter before adding one taping. Bigger trees can handle more taps.
As the sap begins to flows, it runs out the tap and into the bucket. Then, after a significant amount of sap has gone into the bucket, the sugarer needs to go out and collect the syrup.
For small hobbyists, the sap collection might be accomplished by walking through the woods on snowshoes while dragging a sled and collection bucket behind you. While some larger operations may use a horse drawn sled to collect the syrup.
The modern sugaring approach is a little different. The sugarer will use similar taps, but have a network of tubes that run through the sugarbush down to a collection tank instead. This eliminates the need of having to go around and collect each bucket.
Many of these more modern operations also have equipment like a vacuum system and a reverse osmosis machine.(3) A reverse osmosis machine is used to remove some of the water from the sap before boiling.
After the sap is collected, it needs to be boiled down in order to become syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
For the commercial sugarer, the boiling process would happen in what is known as an evaporator, or evaporator pan. The pan is set over a fire and heated to about 219 degrees Fahrenheit and the sap is brought to a sugar concentration of 67 percent. Then the syrup is removed from the evaporator and transferred to the finishing pan before it is filtered, graded, and bottled.
For hobbyist sugarer, this whole process may be completed in one pot on the stove, or in a larger pot over a burner in the yard.
Many people know that maple syrup is great on pancakes. However, it can also be great as candy, or in cookies, or in Maple Liqueur or Bourbon, You can also cook with maple syrup. Check out VermontMaple.org for some great recipe ideas.
Poems About Sugaring
We couldn’t close out this investigation into maple sugaring without turning to the poetry of Robert Frost. This poem recounts the evenings spent in the sugaring shack.
“Evening in the Sugar Orchard’ by Robert Frost
From where I lingered in a lull in March outside the sugar-house one night for choice, I called the fireman with a careful voice And bade him leave the pan and stoke the arch: 'O fireman, give the fire another stoke, And send more sparks up chimney with the smoke.' I thought a few might tangle, as they did, Among bare maple boughs, and in the rare Hill atmosphere not cease to glow, And so be added to the moon up there. The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show On every tree a bucket with a lid, And on black ground a bear-skin rug of snow. The sparks made no attempt to be the moon. They were content to figure in the trees As Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades. And that was what the boughs were full of soon
- “Tap Tree”; TapMyTrees.com
- “Adirondack Maple Sugaring”; VisitAdriondacks.com
- “How is Maple Syrup Made”; VermontMaple.org
Looking for something else to read? Naturalist Weekly has several curated lists of poetry, haiku, and books featured on our blog. We even have gift cards that can be used throughout the store.
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Deliciously immersive post – the micro-season, maple sugaring, Frost’s poem ‘Evening in the Sugar Orchard’ – Delightful
Hi Anahita, So glad that you enjoyed this post! Thanks for the comment and I hope that all is well.
In Quebec, there is the maple syrup reserves (much like the US oil reserves) for when there is a shortage of syrup.
Yes! There was actually a large theft from that reserve a couple of years ago. The barrels are actually worth more than crude oil! I read recently on NPR that at one time they were worth 20 times as much.
Love this post! Maple syrup festivals are big in my neck of the woods too!
Hi Adele, One of my co-workers started sugaring last weekend. He definitely has a love/hate relationship with the process. I haven’t been to a maple festival in a few years. It might be time to return to one.
Someone is doing it on my mom’s street in a residential neighbourhood, He asked if he could tap my mom’s tree, as well as the others on the street. He is doing it to show his children how it’s done. I noticed the plastic lines and a bucket on the tree today.
That is interesting! He is using a tubing system instead of buckets? He is serious then.
This is fascinating, especially for a guy like me who has never experienced this sort of thing. Many years ago, I worked at a camera store owned by a couple from Vermont. For Christmas, they gave each employee a bottle of authentic Vermont maple syrup. It was unlike any syrup I’d ever tasted. Incredible stuff, and so good (and it didn’t last very long!). This is what I appreciate about your writing so much–I learn about topics I’d otherwise never know, and I get this info from someone well-versed in the field. As for Frost, I have his complete works. His poetry is so influential with regards to how I think about nature and how I try to represent it in my own writing. I love how he takes an ordinary task such as sugaring and makes it magical. Thanks for this, Mark. Well done as always, and you’ve got me craving that authentic Vermont maple syrup now! 😀
Hi Mike, That Vermont made syrup definitely comes in handy for holiday gifts or when visiting family from out of State. I have given a few bottles as gifts in my time. In fact, we have a 4 bottle sampler pack in our closet waiting for the right occasion! Thanks for the kind words about the post. I really just enjoy all the research. It helps me get a better understanding of the place I live. Take care and talk soon,