Tapping nature's sweeter side

As maple syrup festival nears at Hashawha, patrons are learning to mine the sugary sap

February 25, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Every February, Tina Shupp gathers spiles, braces, bits and buckets before heading out with a small group of people into the woods surrounding the Hashawha Environmental Center in Westminster.

She shows the group how to identify red maple trees that are at least 10-inches in diameter and 40-inches in circumference.

"A tree of that size is about 40 years old," Shupp said. "That's the right age for tapping. You can hurt the smaller, younger trees if you tap them too early."

Shupp was leading a group that was participating in a sap-gathering program at the center.

"People come here to help us with tapping because it's the first thing we do in the spring," Shupp said. "They want to get out of the house. And it's also educational and fun."

The sap gathered during the demonstrations will be used during the 21st Maple Syrup Festival being held next Sunday at the center, from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. More than 1,000 patrons are expected to attend the festival that includes a maple syrup and pancake brunch, syrup-making demonstrations, syrup tasting and crafts for the children.

Three times a week, the tapping excursions are planned in conjunction with the festival - weather permitting.

To tap the trees, Shupp uses a drill bit and a brace. She drills a 2- to 4-inch-deep hole with an upward slant into the tree. Then with a spile, which is like a spigot, the hole is tapped and the sap flows into a bucket with a lid.

"The lid keeps out rain and snow, and debris falling from the trees," said Shupp, who will celebrate her 17th year at the center on the day of the festival. "How fast the sap runs determines how quickly you have to empty it."

The center schedules tapping sessions during the middle of February, which is usually the best weather for the program.

How much sap they get from the trees depends upon the weather. Prime conditions for tapping are 40 degrees during the day and below freezing at night, Shupp said.

"This week was the first time we have been able to get any sap," said Shupp, after a recent tapping excursion. "It's been too cold up until now. Today, we did pretty well. We got about five gallons of sap from six trees."

Nine families have signed up to tap this year, Shupp said.

Whether it is a love of the outdoors or sweet syrup, the Jaco family of Westminster does not pass up a chance to tap trees.

"Tapping maple trees is a neat experience," said Deborah Jaco who has been tapping for several years. "It's unique to this area. It's something some kids don't have the opportunity to do."

Jaco brings her children to the center to see the tapping process.

"Tina gave us a little bit of sap, and I took it home to boil it," Jaco said. "It was interesting to see that the sap made such a small amount of syrup."

In addition to weather conditions, a lack of sugar and black maple trees also limits the amount of sap gathered.

There are 13 kinds of maple trees, Shupp said. Six grow in Maryland, and two of the six are good for making syrup - black and sugar maples, she said.

"Ideally black and sugar maples have the sap with the highest sugar content," Shupp said. "A good sap is about 4 to 6 percent sugar. The red maple we tap has a sap with a sugar content of 1 to 2 percent. Trees bred for syrup production can have a sugar content that is as high as 9 percent."

How much syrup is produced is dependent upon the sap collected, Shupp said.

"We collect sap and boil the water out of it," Shupp said. "The water evaporates and what stays behind is the sugar. If you want to end up with one gallon of syrup, you need to collect forty gallons of sap." Shupp said the group went out and tried to gather sap because it was scheduled, "but we didn't get anything. The first time we got anything at all was [Feb. 17]."

Ryan Jaco, 10, said he enjoyed going out into the woods, regardless of the success or failure of the tapping missions.

"It's in the woods, and I like doing things out in the woods," Ryan said. "If I had to rate tapping trees, I would give it an eight or nine on a one-to-10 scale. It's a lot of fun."

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