Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Maple sugaring step one: ID your Tree

How does a Brit, transplanted to Bethlehem, New Hampshire, figure out which trees in the northern forest will yield the sweet sap that boils down to maple syrup? Here’s Rocks Estate manager Nigel Manley’s story…

Shaggy bark + long-forgotten bucket = sugar maple!

During my first sugaring season at The Rocks, it was definitely a challenge to figure out the art of making maple syrup. I hadn’t even tasted maple syrup until I moved to the States at age 23. Coming from the UK (where there is only one native maple – the field maple), the most difficult part of maple sugaring for me was trying to figure out which trees to tap.

Branching, buds, and bark are the three keys to identifying trees in winter, when we don’t have their distinct leaf shapes to tip us off as to their species. My first maple season, I set off into the snowy late winter woods to find sugar maples – opposite branches; buds that are small, sharp and brown to reddish-brown in color; bark that can be smooth on younger trees, but is shaggy on older trees.

I quickly found out that for a novice tree seeker, it’s pretty easy to determine opposite branching (which in this region means ash, red maple, or sugar maple), but getting a good look at buds that are 20 to 40 feet above me was nearly impossible.

To compound the challenge, I was wearing snowshoes – another thing I’d never tried in the UK. As I trudged through the forest, there was plenty of tripping, falling, and sliding between glacial erratics as I searched for the seemingly elusive sugar maple. As I looked high above into the branches, struggling to see those little buds, I kept crossing the backs of my snowshoes and toppling over.

Apparently, falling over in deep snow had an effect, as I soon had a revelation: the easiest way to find a sugar maple in a sugar orchard (which contains several species of trees) is to look for the tree trunks that have holes drilled into them from previous sugaring seasons. (Rarely, there's even a sap bucket left behind, as in the photo above.) One caveat to this technique is that it only works if you’re in a sugar orchard that has been tapped previously by a knowledgeable sugar maker.

At the New Hampshire MapleExperience, we teach visitors how to identify sugar maple trees – and we do it from the comfort and safety of a horse-drawn wagon. No snowshoes, no tipping over into the snow, just pure fun as we pick out ash, red maple, sugar maple, and New Hampshire’s state tree, the white birch, from the forests around the farm.

Did you know…. There are over 100 species of maple tree in the world (and seven in New Hampshire), and syrup is made primarily from the sap of the sugar maple. Other species, like the red maple and boxelder, may be tapped to make syrup, but the sap of the sugar maple contains the highest sugar content – roughly 2 percent – and produces a lighter and more flavorful syrup.

Keep your eyes on our Maple Blog for more about sugaring and the New Hampshire Maple Experience, from tapping trees and maple cooking demos to what happens in the sugar house and our interactive Maple Museum.

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