Syrup From Oregon’s Big Leaf Maple
by Victor Morejohn, photos by Tal Blankenship
There is a great potential in establishment of a seasonal “sugarbush” industry for small farmers of the northwestern states, particularly western Oregon and Washington.
Five syrup producing species of maples (Sugar, Black, Red, Silver, Box Elder) are found mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. These species overlap in geographic distribution from the southern Great Lakes region eastward. The Sugar Maple (Acre saccharum), often called hard rock maple, and the Black Maple (Acre nigrum) are considered the most important syrup producing species in the United States.
The Box Elder (Acre negundo) and the Big-leaf Maple (Acre macrophyllum) are the only syrup producing maples of the Pacific Northwest. Properly made syrup from these two western maples is indistinguishable from the syrup of maples of the midwestern and northeastern states.
When to Tap the Trees
Whether you live in the northeast, midwest or along the Pacific slope, the time to start tapping the trees may come anytime from mid-January to mid-March, whenever spring begins fingering into winter. In most areas of the northwest, January and February are the months to begin tapping. The time to tap maples for sap is on clear, warm days after a snowy, icy or frosty night, when the temperature drops below freezing. At this time of year, west of the Cascades in central and southern Oregon, weather conditions from year to year, however, are unreliable. We may have five to six weeks without frosts, overcast days or intermittent rains with night-time temperatures above freezing. If so, no maple syrup for that year. Or we may be blessed with clear, sunny days with above freezing daytime temperatures and crispy, frosted clear nights below freezing. This type of weather makes the sap flow.
I generally cut a branch tip off below a bud and watch it for a few minutes. If it begins to bleed sap, it is time to get your brace and 7/16″ wood bit and start drilling your holes. We have over fifty-five Big Leaf Maples along a 3/4 mile stretch of our farm along the South Umpqua River. I try to be selective and choose trees that are not too crowded with Ash or Cottonwood trees. I choose open-crowned trees that have not been reaching for sunlight under the larger Cottonwoods. These trees produce more leaves (have more chlorophyll) and consequently are capable of putting more sugar in their sap.
How to Tap Trees
Although it is recommended that holes be drilled on the southern side of maples for more sap flow, I have found that some trees located on southern exposed river banks, where I could only tap the north side, have yielded as much sap as trees of similar size tapped on their southern side.
Make the holes about waist high, three to four inches deep, slightly inclined upward into the tree; and clean out all shavings with a narrow, pointed knife. Once the hole is made, a conveyance is necessary to direct the sap into a container. Any type of cylindrical, hollow structure may be used, such as finger-sized, straight twigs that have pithy cores. These may be hollowed out and will do the job. Plastic or galvanized pipe also may be used. Commercially these things are called “spiles” (Figure 1) and are available in several styles relatively cheap ($.30 to $.75) and may be purchased from several midwestern or northeastern maple syrup and equipment and supply companies. Homemade spiles are not as efficient as the commercially manufactured types, mainly because plastic or galvanized pipe sections are not tapered. The commercial types are conical (tapered sides) for several reasons: the neck of the spile is larger in diameter (1/2″) than the bored hole (7/16″) and are hammered into the hole to make a snug fit at the neck of the spile (Figure 2). In this manner, the conical part of the spile in the hole does not touch the sides of the holes. Essentially the neck of the spile plugs the hole, preventing leakage, and sap can freely flow into the space around and in the spile tip. The metal nubbin above the spile spout serves to allow a claw hammer or small prybar to remove the spile for cleaning or for end-season removal. Plastic or galvanized pipe sections have parallel sides, fit tightly along the length of the hole, allow sap to enter only from the end within the hole, and are difficult to remove from the trees. Our neighbor, Ray Hicke, downriver from us, told me that when he was a youngster back in the Dakotas, he helped his Dad tap maples. For spiles, his Dad used old sickle bar teeth, slightly bent from tip to base to serve as spouts. He drove them point first into the trees below a drilled hole and used the rivet holes on the end of the base to wire on his containers.