My dad is fond of saying that February feels like the longest month of the year, even though it is the shortest in length. I get that. It’s cold, it’s been cold, and there’s no foreseeable end in sight. The charm of fresh snow has long faded away, and the world outside seems like a vast wasteland of barren trees and howling winds.
But, that’s only how it looks on the surface. I promise you, life is stirring out there under last year’s dead growth and dirty slush. To me, February represents the first month of spring. The first of the seeds for next year’s garden will be planted indoors this month, offering the green promise of bounty and renewal to come. Skunk cabbage, the first of our native woodland wildflowers to bloom, melts the snow around it via chemical processes of cellular respiration. The balmy temperatures inside the flower offer shelter to the earliest emergent insects, who in turn do a favor to the skunk cabbage plants by pollinating them. If nighttime temperatures stay above freezing and you’re brave enough to venture out, you may even hear amorous amphibians like wood frogs and spring peepers announcing their renewed passion from the still icy ponds deep in the forest.
Yet, the greatest celebration of awakening to me is something much more subtle and secret: the trees are waking up. I’m a forest person; my genetic history is linked with that of our temperate broadleaf forest biome. I feel a sort of clandestine pact with the trees, and to know they are once again beginning to shake off the drudgeries of winter makes me feel a sort of giddy energy and excitement for what is to come. Mind you, this awakening is inaudible and invisible. The only reason I’m in on the secret is because I’ve received the gift of this heritage knowledge from those much wiser from me, who learned it from those wiser than them, and so on and so forth, back all the way to the trees themselves. The secret is inside the tree- it’s the sap.
Sugar maples, Acer saccharum, are, as far as I know, the earliest species of tree in our forest to begin the respirative and metabolic processes of turning sunlight to sugar after the long chill of winter. Like all our trees, maples keep the bulk of their lifeblood- sap- safely stored underground in their root systems for the winter. To neglect to do so would cause risk of frost cracks in the trunk of the tree (think of putting a bottle of pop in your freezer to chill, then forgetting to take it out...). Generally starting in the end of February in our region, Mother Nature gently nudges trees back into action by balancing warming days against cold nights. The pressural changes that result with this freezing and thawing cause the sap to slowly rise from the protective underground warmth of the soil and up into the trunk, branches and buds of the tree. The surging gas and nutrient flow signals the tissues of the tree to begin growing again in order to produce flowers for reproduction and leaves for photosynthesis. Even for trees, it all comes down to food and mating.
Maple sap looks just like water
Sap is cooked in an evaporator, which must be done outside. For each gallon of finished syrup, 39 gallons of water are boiled off!
It’s a complicated process, but our cultural ancestors learned to make use of this spring-time phenomenon without any formal training in chemistry or physics. There are many interesting legends describing how Indigenous North Americans discovered maple sugar, but the truth is we don’t know when, where, or who witnessed the first tasting of this “liquid gold.” What we do know is that the collecting and boiling down of maple sap into sugar has likely been practiced for thousands of years and was considered so valuable that nomadic tribes would travel to the maple forests this time of year to hold grand celebrations in honor of the return of sugaring time.
Pioneers changed the game slightly when they arrived with their technology of metals and horsepower, but the process remains to this day elegantly elemental. Sap, which is about 97% water and only 2 – 3% sugar, is collected and boiled until concentrated. The resulting product we are most familiar with is a rich, amber syrup, though the early people of our continent cooked the liquid further until it crystallized into hard cakes, which were more easily transportable.
Pioneers used giant metal cauldrons to boil down maple sap
If you've ever wondered why real maple syrup is so expensive, consider that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. While each tree yields slightly different amounts of sap, you can figure you’ll get about a quart of finished syrup from each mature maple. And that’s only if the weather is just right. The syrup industry is absolutely- and sometimes precariously-tied to the weather conditions of the current year. Too little fluctuation between warm days and cold nights or temperatures that warm too suddenly can result in a calamitously shorts season of only a few days. The sap becomes bitter and loses the great pressure that allows it to drip from the tree once the buds begin their process of opening for the year. If luck is in your favor, then the sugaring season can last for weeks.
Syruping the old-fashioned way: Full buckets must be collected by hand from each tree
From a business standpoint, the production of syrup is fraught with risk, yet the uniqueness and heritage makes it a worthwhile process to many. Ohio is one of only a dozen or so states that can produce maple syrup, and northeastern North America is the only place in the entire world maple syrup is made. Other locations either don’t have sugar maples or don’t have the right climate. This ultra-special tradition is so precious, yet many have never ventured out on these earliest of spring days to witness the event firsthand. I invite you this spring to pull on your muck boots and visit the only public sugaring operation in Cuyahoga County at Rocky River Reservation’s Maple Grove Picnic Area. The sugarbush will be open March 1st, 2nd, 8th & 9th from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.