Maple trees

Maple trees

Those sweet harbingers of spring

Sometimes, when I am walking in the woods on a late-February day, I find areas in the snow beneath a maple tree that are slushy with dripping tree sap. Squirrels and other animals know that if they break the twigs on a warm day, the sap will drip and they can lap it up and enjoy the sweet sugars. Humans no doubt learned by observing this behavior, and have enjoyed sap and its by-products, syrup and sugar, for thousands of years.

An indigenous friend once shared this Passamaquoddy story with me, which I love and frequently share with my school groups when they visit Salt Bay Farm to learn about tapping trees (please forgive my abbreviated re-telling):

A long time ago, the sap that came out of a maple tree was thick, brown and sweet. In those days, Gluskabe would go from village to village to keep an eye on the people on behalf of the Creator. One day, Gluskabe came to an abandoned village and he wondered what had happened to the people. As he got closer, he saw that all the people were lying on their backs under some maple trees, where the maple syrup was dripping into their mouths. The syrup had fattened them and made them lazy, so they could barely move.

So Gluskabe made a large bucket from birch bark and filled it with water from the river. He added the water to all the maple trees until the sap was thin and clear. After a while, the people began to get up because the sap was no longer so thick and sweet. Gluskabe told them that if they wanted the syrup again, they would have to work hard to get it, because he did not want them to be lazy and fail to get ready for next winter!

So that’s my favorite story of why sap is like sugar water, just faintly sweet, and why it must be cooked down for many hours to thicken it to maple syrup or sugar. In fact, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to cook into one gallon of maple syrup from a sugar maple. Other maples – like red maples and boxelders – also produce sweet sap, but the ratio of water to sugars is even higher. In some places people gather sap from birches, which produces an almost fruity tasting syrup.

Certainly, when daylight periods lengthen and daytime temperatures start to rise in late February, we start to feel the renewal that begins to permeate the forests. The trees respond as well, and their sap begins to flow from their roots into trunks, branches and buds. The buds swell with the stored sugars and water in preparation for the opening of their leaves and flowers. Maple flowers are among the first to open, and they are splendid pendulums of red high above us once the sap has ceased to “run” and turns murky with minerals, and we pull the taps from the trees .

Colletes (cellophane bees), Andrena (mining bees), and Lasioglossum (sweat bees), are among the bees who pollinate red maple, and in fact with so few flowers available in early spring, the maple flowers are a very important source of food for them. Successful pollination results in the double samara, or fruit, that will later disperse maple seeds with the wind (although sometimes those fruits are helped along by children who love to play with the “helicopter” seed coverings).

To me, these cycles – minerals moving from soil through the tree and into animals, energy from the sun powering the flow of water, pollination and seed development, and the seasonal changes – all intertwine to form this incredible textile of spring.

Red maple blossom by Tom Arter