This is the time of year when broken maple twigs begin to weep. Their outflow of sap will freeze overnight and form pale sugar-sickles (see above) that catch the morning light. Because only the water content of the sap actually freezes, the sugar is naturally concentrated at the tip and the sickles make for a refreshing treat. Unfortunately, they are fleeting creations that melt with the slightest prompting by the sun. These sickles probably provided the original idea for the human processing of Maple Syrup (apologies to Nanabozo). Sugar sickle season is maple sugaring season.
The traditional joys of the sugar season – tapping the trees, boiling off the sap, and breathing in the billowing sweet steam of the sugar shack, should be experienced by all. I am not a big time sugaring guy. I have tapped a few trees in my time and produced my share of stovetop syrup. I have breathed in the steam coming off a canning kettle and nearly destroyed our wallpaper in the process. I have further processed my syrup into maple candy. So, I am vetted in the process, but beyond that I can claim no special knowledge. It should be said, however, that the process is not an especially complicated one. You drill a hole in a Sugar or Red Maple, tap in a spile to direct the flow of sap, collect the watery sap, and then boil off the sap until you achieve the syrup stage. It is a magical process but not a mysterious one.
After a hiatus of nearly 15 years, I decided to again tap a maple – a Red Maple to be exact (see above and here). From the second the auger bit into the tree, it started to weep the sweet tears of late winter. So far the tree has yielded about 10 gallons of sap. I’ve yet to turn any of this into syrup. To date, all of this production has been rendered into a wonderful elixir I call Syrup Tea. Rather than finish everything off, I stop the simmering at a stage well before it becomes syrup. At this point it has a rich golden color (see below) and tastes, well, like sweet elixir. A small cup– taken cold – is a taste experience unlike any other. Heck, it might even be good for you but I don’t care about that. It can’t be bad for you. In another life I’d be marketing this stuff under the label of “Squirrel Dew.”
The above title is actually an old prohibition word for hooch and refers to homebrew. While the old-fashioned stuff was highly alcoholic and sometimes deadly, this natural version has none of the side effects. It is as pure as it can get (actually chock full of chemicals, but good chemicals). The idea of drinking concentrated sap (pre-syrup) is not my own, it is one inspired by creatures such as Sap-suckers, Mourning Cloaks, Red Admirals and the like who lick tree sap. Perhaps the earliest and most active seasonal practitioners of the art are squirrels. Thus, it is appropriate to call my product Squirrel Dew.
Red Squirrels are especially prone to drinking sap. These spritely rodents definitely have a sweet tooth. They will take advantage of natural seepages such as sugar sickles but will also deliberately maintain sap wells by chewing away bark. Freshly chewed bark, complete with tooth marks, are especially visible this time of year because of the cascade of wet bark below them (see here). In other words, they reduce the art of maple sugaring its most basic level: wound tree, allow sap to leak out, let heat of the sun concentrate sap, and enjoy. They are not able to cook the stuff into syrup and have no abilities to handle pancake batter, so they just drink the Squirrel Dew and go on with their little lives.
Squirrels will even take this whole thing one step further. They do not restrict themselves to maple trees. I have often watched as our neighborhood reds lick sugary sap off of the upper twigs of Black Walnut tree, for instance (see below). These wounded twigs are glistening with sticky wetness and the squirrels will passionately lick it up as they cling to the narrow twigs.
As to how this tastes I can’t say. I’ve never tried to make walnut syrup but, as odd as it sounds, such a thing can be done. In native times, white birch often served as an alternate source of maple..er, of tree sugar. Nearly any deciduous tree will do when it comes to rendering sap, but when compared to the product of King Maple they are hardly worthy of human effort.
To a sweet-hungry little Red Squirrel, however, such matters are of no concern. I’ll drink to that!