Sweet gift of maple syrup is a spring joy to behold

By Ryan Trapani
Trees give us lots of things. These long-living perennials help provide us with everything from fiber for our homes to hard mast in the form of hickory, acorn, chestnut, and butternut for many types of wildlife.
Other trees produce soft mast in the form of cherries, serviceberries, mulberries, and let us not forget those delicious apples. When they fall down from wind, insect, disease or some other stress they are quickly put to use. Small mammals and songbirds build their homes underneath them to shelter themselves from wind and elements. Seeds germinate underneath to become seedlings where they might be protected from browsing deer. If a tree should fall into a stream, brook trout hide under them waiting for an insect to fall from the tips of their twigs and branches.
More noticeable, in March and April, is the work that the tree’s millions upon billions of tiny microscopic root tips take part in. Unbeknownst to most animals, humans and scientists who try to monitor their life activities, these tiny roots are responsible for the tree’s massive uptake of water. In doing so the roots help hold soil in place and filter water.
However, every spring some trees give up their secret when asked to by one strain of human: the “sugar-maker.” Maple producers soon realize just how much water in the form of sap these trees sequester. The ingredients involved in creating sweet, plentiful sap that can be boiled down into maple syrup are weather and sunlight.
It is still too early to say what the final results are from this season’s maple production, but it seems the Catskills experienced an above-average season. The weather has been perfect for maple sugaring if you do not mind a few raindrops over your head in place of a few inches of snow under your feet. Even though this winter we didn’t receive very much snow, the temperatures made the sap drip consistently. The weather is what mostly is responsible for how much sap a tree will yield. In order for the sap to run the weather must consist of cold nights followed by warm days. However, it’s not as simple as that. If it is too cold at night it may not run until late the next day, when everything warms up and begins to thaw. Temperatures that are just below freezing followed by temperatures in the 40s without wind create high sap flows. Weather of this kind has been typical this year in the Catskills and maple producers are busy turning lots of sap into syrup. It was not uncommon this season for a tap to yield over two gallons per day.
The sun is the other factor that can make or break a successful sugaring season. The more sunlight a tree receives the more carbon it can take from the atmosphere and fix it into energy or carbohydrates that are later transformed into sucrose. The sucrose is what we end up spreading on our pancakes, cereals, and muffins.
In recent years, the Catskills have been experiencing Forest Tent Caterpillar damage. These insects are defoliators and eat the leaves of trees particularly sugar maple. In doing so, they prevent the tree from creating energy for storage and therefore reduce the sugar content for the next spring. So even though the weather conditions may be right and produce abundant quantities of sap, the sugar content may be low. The lower the sugar content, the more water must be boiled away before the sugars are finally concentrated enough to make maple syrup.
In most parts of the Catskills, the caterpillar damage was minimal last summer. Coupled with great sap weather and a recent healthy summer, this maple-sugaring season seems to be a good one. The trees that the I tapped saw an average sugar content of 2.3 percent. Typically, average sugar content is 2.0 percent. The first run of the season recorded 3.0 percent sugar content. Last year the average sugar content for my trees was 1.6 percent. At 2 percent sugar content it takes 42 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. At 2.5 percent sugar content it only takes 33.4 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup
Maple producers do not have control over the weather. Sometimes there is even less they can do when millions of insects defoliate their stands of maple during the late spring and summer. However, one thing these forest farmers can do to perpetuate a healthy annual crop of sugar from these mighty perennials is let the light shine onto their “crop-tree” maples.
A traditional farmer who plants vegetables knows what weeding is very well. The vegetables they want to perpetuate must be free from overtopping weeds that will steal the sun’s rays away from them. The same is true in a sugar bush or stand of maple trees used in maple syrup production. The more sunlight, the sweeter the sap will be, and the healthier the stand of trees will be. Trees that receive sufficient amounts of sunlight are less susceptible to insects, disease, and pathogens. They will also supply more often and abundantly such things as maple syrup for us humans to spread upon our oats and grains; acorns, hickory, and cherries for wildlife to forage upon; and fiber to build our houses out of. For more information on how to manage your forest, call the Catskill Forest Association at 586-3054 or visit on-line @ www.catskillforest.org.

Editor’s note: Ryan Trapani is the education forester for the Arkville-based CFA.