Sunday, March 29, 2015

Urban Forest Maple Sugaring

Maple Sugar Days in Milwaukee County include tours of the urban forests
Wisconsinites are a hearty bunch, and those who live in the city are no exception.  We like to "live off the land", even when it's just for show.  Maple sugaring time is a great example.  In spite of having tall buildings and underground sewer, we are known for our urban forests.  In fact, we made the list of the top 10 "Best Cities for Urban Forests" a few years back.  When warmer weather starts to show, the sap runs in the maple trees around the city, and in a few parks, you can experience the art of maple sugaring.  That time is now.

The trees need cold temperatures at night and warm sunshine during the day.  Sometimes spring comes too quickly and we have a bad year for the sugar.  Once a tree has buds, the sap tastes bitter and can't be used.  I visited a couple of our parks yesterday to see how the process is going.

The Washington Park Urban Ecology Center had a group eager to learn more about making maple syrup- both young and old alike.  I met Eric as he took them on a walk through the park.  First stop was just outside the back door where a volunteer was stoking the fire and cooking sap that had been collected earlier.  It smelled kind of sweet, and kind of smoky.  The clear liquid was boiling and Eric explained that it had to remain boiling to cook off the water in the sap.  Though it was a large pan, he said in the end it would make about a quart of syrup.  When the liquid starts to get thicker and has an amber color, it is taken indoors to cook.
The wood stove with a pan of maple sap cooking
The hike went over the bridge to the other side of the park, near the band shell, where there were several maples.  Because there were no leaves on the trees, Eric explained how to identify the sugar maple by its bark, woodpecker holes, and the way the branches grew.  If a tree has branches that grow opposite to each other, it can be an ash or a maple.  The photo below shows one of the sugar maples.  If you are considering tapping maple trees in your own backyard, there's a good video to help you determine if you have a sugar maple.
Look for opposite branches on the tree

Many years ago, maple sap was collected in buckets which had to be washed and stored when not in use.  Someone came up with the idea to use plastic bags which can be tossed after the season is over.  the only downside is that they can blow off if the sap isn't weighing them down and sometimes critters like squirrels will chew a hole in the bag to get to the sap.  Larger healthy trees can support more than one taphole, so you may see trees with 2 bags.
Holes are drilled and bags hung

We went to Wehr Nature Center in Whitnall Park to learn more about tapping, as they were celebrating their Maple Sugar Days. I found Ken Keffer, Naturalist, tending a pot of sap cooking just before he spoke with one of the dozens of groups coming through this weekend.  He said he used to camp out in the woods as a child and help make maple syrup, but things were historically a bit different.  A handheld drill was used to punch holes in the trees and sometimes the spouts were made from sumac.  He later demonstrated how a sumac branch could be hollowed out using a hot metal instrument. It was hard work, but obviously something he enjoyed and still does as an adult.

Ken Keffer at Wehr Nature Center woods
Though most of the formal events are finished for this season, you may still see maple sugaring happening at Riverside Park, Washington Park, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, and Wehr Nature Center.  This happens every March so put it on your schedule for next year, if you want to experience this in person.  You can support the Washington Park Urban Ecology Center by attending their pancake breakfast April 4th, where maple syrup from the park will be used.

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