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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

The Pulse Of Early Spring: Tapping Maple Trees

Temperatures are cool at night and warm during the day. It must be time to tap maple trees! Michael Bell gives a tutorial.

bucket hanging on a maple tree

Photo: Sarah Gordon/WFIU

One maple tree tapped at the Hinkle Garton Farmstead, several more to go!

Show And Tell

There are several mature sugar maple trees around the grounds of the Hinkle Garton Farmstead. Michael Bell, chair of the grounds committee at the farmstead, is tasked with tapping these majestic trees to collect sap and then boil it down for the farmstead’s own maple syrup.

Today he has an audience of a dozen people who are curious to learn about the tapping process.

Bell is trying to be reasonably authentic to how they would have collected sap back in 1886 when the property was first settled. The old fashioned spill he’s using is 7/16″ diameter with a hook from which the galvanized bucket and its lid will hang. The one glaring update of the process is the electric drill he uses to create the initial hole in the tree.

Maple Tree Tapping 101

Southern Indiana is experiencing ideal temperatures for the sap to start flowing — mid-20s at night to mid-40s during the day. During freezing temperatures, the tree draws in water from its roots. When the temperatures warm up, it expels sap. The freeze-thaw cycle will produce syrup-worthy sap until the tree buds. On days when these trees are really flowing, the four-gallon buckets will be completely full. “The old timers call it 100 drips per minute, sort of a heartbeat rate,” he says.

Trees must be a minimum of ten inches in diameter to be tapped; a tree over 16 inches can be tapped twice. He is sure to select a spot 6-10 inches away from previous year’s tap sites because the sap flow won’t be as great near the spots where the tree is healing.

Once he’s drilled a hole two inches into the tree, he hammers the spile into place. “You’ll notice a distinct change in tone when it’s seated,” he says, “a dead sound, so you know you’ve got it all the way in.” He hands the bucket from the hook on the spill, slides the lid into place and moves onto the next tree.

Leave It To The Pros?

Sounds easy enough to do yourself in your backyard, right? Not so fast. Let’s say you start with ten gallons of sap in the hopes of getting a pint of syrup after boiling. Bell says there’s a point where you go from taking a teaspoon of water out to get syrup and you take the next teaspoon out and you have sludge.

Perhaps we should leave the process of boiling sap down to syrup to the professionals!

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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