Garden Variety: Tapping trees is easier than you might expect
Warmer temperatures and longer days mean that sap is beginning to flow in maples and other trees around the Lawrence area. The weather changes signify the ideal time to collect tree sap for syrup-making purposes. Tapping a tree for sap and making syrup is somewhat uncommon in this region, but it’s easier than you might expect.
Late winter and early spring are the times when trees break dormancy and sap begins to flow under the bark’s surface. Ideal conditions for sap collection are daytime temperatures in the 40s and nighttime temperatures below freezing. This is when sugar content is the highest. When temperatures get beyond that, sugars change to starch and sap is not ideal for syrup making.
Sugar maples have a higher sugar content in their sap than other maples, but all maple species, including boxelder, can be tapped.
Other common tree species in Kansas that produce desirable sap/syrup are birch, hickory, black walnut and sycamore. They each produce less sap than maples and have lower sugar content, but that only means it takes more sap to produce the same amount of syrup. The syrups of these species are reported to have unique, desirable flavor profiles. They also typically produce sugary sap a little longer into the spring than maples because they are slower to break dormancy.
To tap trees for syrup-making, you need trees of the mentioned species that are at least 10 to 12 inches in diameter when measured at breast height (technically 4 1/2 feet off the ground).
Next, you need spiles (taps), a drill, a hammer and several collection containers. For syrup, you need a large pot in which to cook the sap, cheesecloth for straining (or specialty filter material) and jars for storage.
Plan to place one spile per 10- to 20-inch-diameter tree. Trees that are 20 to 25 inches in diameter can hold two spiles, and trees over 25 inches can hold three spiles.
Ten gallons of sugar maple sap will produce about a quart of syrup, so plan to collect enough to make it worth your while. One tree will typically produce 5 to 15 gallons of sap depending on the weather and site conditions. Other species may produce less sap, thus yielding less syrup.
Purchase spiles through specialty retailers or make them yourself from wooden dowels. For homemade spiles, cut a 1/2-inch-diameter dowel into 3-inch-long pieces, and drill a 1/8-inch hole down the center of each dowel. Taper one end of the dowel to fit into the tree and make a notch in it to hold the collection container.
Once you have picked out trees and assembled the necessary tools, you are ready to tap the trees. Use the drill to create a hole for the spile. If using 1/2-inch-diameter spiles, use a 7/16-inch drill bit. Holes should be 2 to 4 feet above the ground, leaving room for the collection container to hang off the spile. Drill holes with a slight upward angle, about 3 inches deep into the tree. The hole depth is to give the spile stability for holding the collection container.
Use the hammer to gently tap the spile into the hole, and hang the collection container on the spile.
Empty containers daily and store sap in a cool place until ready for processing. Keep the sap in a cool place and process it soon after harvest to avoid spoilage.
Syrup is made from the sap by boiling it to allow water to cook off. An outdoor stove with a large pot works best for this process. Add small amounts of sap to the pot as it cooks down. Cook slowly and watch the pot closely. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. The sap is officially syrup when it reaches 219 degrees. At this point, allow the syrup to cool a little and pour it through cheesecloth into jars for storage.
Keep syrup refrigerated or use a canner to seal jars for shelf storage.
— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.