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Maple Syrup Season Part .1

Flow by day, freeze by night, the time is right! Although our society is suffering an epidemic of obesity and over-nutrition, when transitioning to a local food system, having a robust selection of sugar sources is an important consideration. There are a handful of sugar sources available in the Great Lakes bio-region. The most prominent are listed in the resource Growing Resiliency in the Great Lakes Bio-Region.

As a sugar, maple sap is the best studied perennial source for our region. Birch, butternut, black walnut and some species of pine saps have also begun to be extracted for sugar. Utilizing multiple tree species for syrup production may allow designers increased yields from existing tree stands, as well as enhance biodiversity in design of a new sugarbush. Perennial food sources tend to be less disruptive to the ecosystem but take longer to yield than annual sources. A technique that is being utilized with good success to produce sap in younger trees uses vacuum pressure extraction.

Advanced techniques and ideas are important to consider for long term patterns in permaculture design. Learning the basics creates a foundation of experience for developing new techniques. Maple syrup season is upon us again, so we sat down with a couple local syrup makers in this series to hear their tips and tricks. Maple sugaring events in Southeast Michigan are listed at the end of this article.

These two really enjoy maple syrupJeremy Kenward

Co-founder of Wild Earth Detroit. He obtained his PDC from Rhamis Kent through PRI-DE in Detroit. He previously interned at Quiet Creek Herb Farm and School of Country Living in Pennsylvania

GLPP: You have a unique location, one doesn’t usually hear about sugarbushs in the city! Tell us about your neighborhood.

JK: We live in Brightmoor, which is a community in the Northwest corner of Detroit. We have a pretty unique group of people living in a pretty unique neighborhood. We have a river with floodplain forest on the edges, and a high percentage of former structures no longer present within the neighborhood. There are quite few people, myself included, that have moved here to get involved in the urban gardening initiatives that are underway.

I have a job that involves driving all over southeast Michigan. I don’t think its common knowledge that sugar maple is a popular choice for street tree or shade tree in yards. This time of year I feel like I’m surrounded by sugar maples everywhere I go! Whether you are in a city, suburb, or the country, its very likely that there are trees you could tap nearby, if only you take time to notice them and learn this old skill.

My maple brings all the sap to the yard

Tap and sap collection container secured to tree. Photo courtesy Jeremy Kenward

GLPP: Are you tapping trees on your property or around the neighborhood?

JK: There is a street about two blocks from me with around 15 sugar maples as street trees. They’re somewhat young, but old enough to tap. Many of the houses on that street are abandoned or no longer exist and so its a great spot to collect sap. We also knock on doors of the occupied homes and ask permission to tap the trees. We offer some syrup in exchange and most of the time people are cool with it.

We also tap some larger trees in the floodplain where we can put 2-3 taps per tree. The trade off is a much further walk. When you consider that there are about 8 pounds in a gallon of water/sap, that means each bucket is going to come in around 40 pounds when full. (note: don’t let buckets get too full. They are heavy to carry and splash sticky cold liquid all over you at a time of year you definitely don’t want to be wet.)

GLPP: How many trees total are you tapping?  Other than sugar maple are you tapping other species?

JK:  We mostly just tap sugar maple. I think we tap somewhere around 24 trees, some of those having 2-3 taps. We’ve tapped silver maple and box elder, mostly out of novelty. Makes a slightly sweet, refreshing water to drink, but I the sugar to water ratio makes them more trouble than they’re worth. One year there were a couple taps that accidentally ended up on black walnut, which I thought would be toxic. Turns out there are people out there that tap walnut on purpose. who knew? This year I’d like to tap a birch tree or two, mostly because I’ve never done it. we’ll see.

GLPP: When do you normally start tapping? Do you think you’ll delay this year because of the unusually cold weather?

JK: Sap flow starts when the temps are consistently above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Generally we tap them mid to late February depending on the weather. As of right now, it definitely seems as though its going to start a little later than years past.

GLPP: What do you see as the most important considerations for sugaring?

JK: Access is one of the most important factors we consider when choosing which trees to tap. We found a grove of about a dozen mature trees with a large canopies down in the flood plain. This grove would yield several 5 gallons buckets everyday during the heavy flow. The walk would be at least 1/4 mile to the nearest point you could get a vehicle and there is no groomed trail to get a sled or wagon in there. we even considered floating it down the river but there are too many log jams. So for now those trees, perhaps the best ones in the neighborhood, will remain untapped.

Turning the maple sap into syrup is not a fast process. A benefit to doing in our neighborhood is that we can share the labor. Some collect firewood. Some collect sap from certain trees or on certain days. We take shifts on boiling, and usually finishing. This is nice because it can be quite overwhelming to do all of the work yourself, unless you have a lot of free time during this season.

GLPP: What are your methods for boiling down the sap?

JK: We used to use a huge 10 gallon kettle, but it was way too deep. Last year we had a steel drum converted into a potbellied stove with a welded in pan and spigot. That system worked ok, but the pan was still too deep. You really want a flat, shallow container. More surface area equals more evaporation.

The most effective method can be to build a foundation with cinderblocks or bricks, place a large, durable shallow pan and start a fire underneath it. All boiling down should be done outside. Remember, you are ultimately removing _ gallons of water from your pan and putting it into the air for every gallon of syrup you make. You really don’t want that all over your walls!

When you start to get close to your desired boil down volume and the sap is tasting really sweet, you want to set that in another container for finishing. We always finish inside the house on the stove. This takes a lot more attention to detail and you’re going to really want to read up on this part. After all the work you’ve done, the last thing you want to do is scorch the syrup at the end

and they're like it's better than ours

Tapping trees is good family fun. Photo courtesy Jeremy Kenward.

Some people also say when the sap is part frozen in the morning you can remove the ice because it does not contain sugar, which is concentrated in the remaining liquid. This is very appealing because it would save a lot of time, labor, and firewood. I’m not really sure why the sugar wouldn’t freeze, because I’ve eaten popsicles before which contains an awful lot of frozen sugar. The ice I tasted last year seemed to have a little sweetness to it, but that could have just been the skepticism in my head. Perhaps this year we can melt the ice and check the brix [scale for sugar content ~ed.] to see if there is sugar, and if so how much.

GLPP: How did you learn to tap trees? Are there specific resources you recommend?

JK: The old fashioned way…youtube. I’m partially kidding, but the internet has been quite helpful in an age of lost skills. We mostly just learned as we went. I still have a lot to learn, and the best way to learn is by doing. Spend some time researching and find some friends, neighbors, and/or family members that are also interested. Don’t try to impress each other, its okay that you don’t know what you’re doing. If everyone is doing a little homework, than you should be able to figure it out by putting your heads together.

A lot of parks and nature centers have maple syrup activities, which is a great way to learn to identify the correct trees. Its certainly worth seeking out an elder or someone with experience. You will learn quite a bit in one season. If you’re totally alone and don’t have tons of time consider tapping on one or two trees.

 Be sure to check out the second installment of this series!

Maple Syrup Events in Southeast Michigan


Feb 17-Mar. 30 Metroparks Maple Sugaring Events Belleville, Dexter, Flat Rock, Milford, Ray Township, White Lake

Mar. 15, 11 am-5 pm Maple Syrup Festival. Fenner Nature Center, Lansing

Mar. 15-16 Michigan Maple Syrup Association Southern MI Maple Weekend (12 Farms brochure)

April 25-27 Vermontville Maple Syrup Festival and Shepard Maple Syrup Festival

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