Last summer I read an old pioneer account of settling the region I live in and was intrigued by a brief reference to making maple syrup from the Box elder trees that grow in the area. Interesting to note, I logged that tidbit in the deep recesses of my mind and then promptly forgot about it. And then later that fall I read Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains by H.D Harrington and Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons both of which also mentioned tapping Box elders for syrup….. Hmmm, I thought, this may be worth some contemplation. Real maple syrup is expensive. Exceedingly so. So much so that I cannot afford it. But Box elder trees are relatively common near the streams and on the low foothills….
I’ve actually been curious about tapping trees to make syrup or sugar for years, my brothers and I did it once when we were kids and tapped a maple tree in the city park. Not sure what the rest of the city thought of that, but it was an interesting experience for us. Needless to say, since we only tapped one tree and we tapped too late in the year the result was less than impressive once we got it all boiled down. Very little remained. And with 10 people to divvy it up amongst the reward was rather diminutive. Not enough, at least, to maintain our interest– we never tried again. It seems about time I give it another shot!
If you’re like me you’ve probably always considered maple syrup to be a thing of the northeast– a luxury relegated to those who are blessed enough to live in a region that abounds with maple trees. Why is that though? You can find some sort of maple growing (sparsely) in virtually every region of North America. After doing a little more poking around I also found accounts of folks tapping trees for syrup across the entire continent too. It makes sense, back in the day there were really only two good sources for sweetner in northern climes– bees and trees. If your options were to either tap and use whatever trees you had on hand or go without any sweets for a year which would you choose? I also found a few references to tapping various other deciduous trees– birch, walnut, hickory, pecan, elm, alder, etc. You don’t even need a maple tree! So why has the tradition of tapping and sugaring been lost across most of the country? Good question… Poor yield of alternative species? Unimpressive flavor? The low cost and ease of acquiring sugar in modern life? Who knows, but this is one heritage skill I’m going to acquire this year!
While I’ve read a few accounts of tapping other species, and have nothing against trying them, I’m still tapping maples for my foray into making syrup. Primarily due to the lack of hardwood trees around here (I live in a high desert). Bigtooth Maple and Box Elder (a maple– albiet an odd one) are some of the only options we have outside of the city (and for the time being I would rather not be tapping the trees in the neighbors yard. . .). Both of them grow reasonably abundantly near streams and in shaded draws, neither one of them tend to get very large though. Most Bigtooth maples around here are only 4-6 inches in diameter, which is a little too small to be tapping. Looking around I managed to find a few candidates that were both large enough and in a location that is not totally conspicuous from the road.
Taps in! Actually tapping the trees is remarkably easy, you don’t need to worry about this one being a time intensive activity. Take the kids, they’ll enjoy it– or at least my 2 year old did! All you need is a drill, spiles, appropriate sized drillbit, and some buckets. I ordered 4 stainless steel spiles from Tap My Tree and put them out the other day, I was getting about a gallon of sap per day from 3 trees and one tree is producing about half that. Sadly, I only had a few days of good flow before it started getting too warm here– I was busy with other things and tapped too late in the season. I had wanted to make a few different homemade spiles to test out, something that will have to wait until next spring now! For the buckets I just went to the dollar store and bought some 1 gallon buckets they have out in preparation for easter. . . very spring-ish. I would love to have some metal pails that you see in pictures of other people out tapping, but alas, I couldn’t find anything like that around here. So cheap easter buckets it is. Lids would be nice, but I really didn’t get too much bugs, bark, etc in them and so I didn’t worry about rigging some up. My other thought for collection containers (and it may be a little less gaudy out on the trees) is to reuse plastic milk jugs or buy 1 gallon jugs of water and then use the container. Both of which would also be inexpensive to procure. Actually, I would prefer to have buckets/containers that were a little larger, I had days where my 1 gallon buckets actually overflowed and have considered going out twice a day to empty them and prevent that from happening. Which surprised me, I’ve read accounts of people getting much more than that from large sugar maples back east, but I didn’t really expect to get that much sap from the small-ish trees I’m tapping.
So what time of year do you tap? How do you know when to stop? Sap will flow best when the weather in your area is above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. You’ll get very little sap once the temperatures stop dropping below freezing at night. Not enough to make it worth checking (I was down to about ¼ gallon per tree over the last few days). The process is simple though, take your drill and drill a hole about 2 inches deep into the sunny side of the tree on a slight angle so that the sap will run out. Use a finger to clean out any sawdust and then gently tap your spile into the hole with a hammer and hang your bucket. That’s it! You need to come back and empty them daily, but it is a very laid back enjoyable activity if you’re only tapping a few trees for personal use (I imagine doing it commercially can be a little hectic!). I collect and empty mine into a food grade 5 gallon bucket (look in the food storage/bulk food section of your local grocery store). The nightly temperatures here were cold enough to freeze the sap pretty solid in the buckets when I started, which makes them difficult to empty in the mornings– as such, I began timing my daily sap run to happen in the afternoon/evening so I don’t have to try and chip it out of the bucket. No sense making life more difficult than it needs to be. Hopefully you still have time to tap a few trees yourself this year, if not, give it a go next year! Experiment a little, and if you tap something other than a maple I would love to hear how the taste compares!
There are a few other modern references that may interest those of you who are interested in making syrup from trees other than maples. Mother Earth News has an article from the 1970’s that talks about making syrup in the pacific northwest from maple, birch and alder (and also mentions nut trees), mapletapper.com also seems to be a reliable source for information on using a few different species of trees and gives more detailed information on how processing birch sap into syrup differs from using maple sap. And lastly, this site lists a number of different trees that can be tapped– and while many listed are varieties of maple they do talk about the flavor differences in a couple different species that some of you may find interesting.