John Muir traveled through the Salish Sea region in 1888 and described ‘magnificent groves’ of maples, ‘attaining heights of seventy-five to a hundred feet and a diameter of four to eight feet…. Laden with long drooping mosses beneath and rows of ferns on their upper surfaces, thus making a grand series of richly ornamented, interlacing arches…. The largest of these maple groves that I have yet found is on the right bank of the Snoqualmie River…. Never have I seen a finer forest ceiling, nor a more picturesque one.’ ‘Not even in the great maple woods of Canada have I seen trees either as large or with so much striking, picturesque character.’ (excerpted from Steep Trails, published posthumously in 1918)
He was speaking of our beautiful Bigleaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum, one of our native hardwoods. The leaves can be enormous, a foot across, described by its common and scientific name, turning a brilliant gold in fall. In spring ki is adorned with drooping cream-colored flower drupes, which soon transform into clusters of v-shaped winged seeds, samaras, which whirl erratically to the ground in the Autumn gusts. The nectar from this flower provides an early spring food for our bees, and which makes a delicious, prized honey. In late winter, the seeds sprout in the forest floor, some years by the thousands and are delicious and ornamental in early spring salads.
Many years ago, I heard that one could tap Bigleaf Maple for syrup, though much lower in sugar and not as tasty as the syrup from the Sugar Maple of the Northeast forests. Nonetheless, I decided to make my own taps, called spiles, carved from wood, and following advice for tapping sugar maple, I set my taps on some nearby trees- sun-facing, mid-size trees, during days of freezing nights and warm days. I got nothing, not even a drop.
More recently, I was re-inspired by a group on Vancouver Island who tap these maples for syrup, and they have been doing so successfully! Some even commercially. In fact they have a Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival each year in Duncan, BC. This motivated me to try my hand at it once again. This time I bought metal spiles from Lehman’s, to eliminate that variable, got some food grade tubing and rounded up some jugs. I got permission from a biodynamic farmer friend to use his uphill forest to try to tap some trees. With some experimentation, I ended up with more sap than I knew what to do with, I was hauling in five gallon jugs twice a day, and rigged a cooking down system that I could manage. I soon ended up with several quarts of the most amazingly delicious syrup, and a few batches of candy when I overcooked it! I’ve been doing it every year since, keeping it to a much more manageable scale, and relish the two or three quarts of golden syrup I end up with as special treat throughout the year.
When a tap is successful the sap drips in a rhythm which reminds me of a heartbeat. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, has written a beautiful essay, titled Maple Sugar Moon, which describes her learning experience making syrup, and her epiphany as her young “girls, stretch out their tongues and slurp, with a look of bliss” and she is moved to tears. “…they are nursed by a maple, as close as they could come to being suckled by Mother Earth.” In my classes I always encourage that moment. Here is a video of one of my taps dripping away happily. https://www.facebook.com/pg/Gatherertogardener/posts/?ref=page_internal
The sap is mildly sweet, high in antioxidants and minerals and can be used as is in beverages, soup and baking. It comes from starch in the roots stored there from the last season, which, through enzymatic action is converted to sugar, and osmotic action, caused by cold nights and warm days, pumps this sugar enriched water up through the xylem layer, the rare time of year this takes place, to reach the leaf and flower buds which, once the days lengthen to spring, will burst into growth. Our spiles, only a few per tree, and only every few years on each tree, intercepts this flow, diverting it to our use. I am reminded of the Sapsucker and Woodpeckers which accompany me while I gather my sap, and I feel that connection. There is scant record of tribes of this region using this sap, but for the tribes of the great hardwood forests of the Northeast it is a core cultural component. It was primarily processed it into sugar, made through evaporation, as soft cakes, candy and granulated sugar. Recently a friend who spends time at the syrup camps in Minnesota, gifted me with a jar of this sugar, which I consider a treasure, and look forward to sharing with others in the coming year of teaching.
Check my Upcoming Classes for workshops on this, usually in January and February.
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