Sugaring in Virginia

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Learn the Ancient Art of Tree Tapping for Syrup

The cold seasons may feel like a time of stillness—a pause in life and production. Our gardens are often bare, the ground is hard, and the winter hues of gray and brown may dampen our motivation to get outside. But here in Central Virginia, the trees are soon to be ripe for the harvest. No, not the fruits or nuts of summer, but of sweet, sticky syrup.

Humans have been tapping trees and harvesting sap to make syrup (“sugaring” as it has been called) as a food and medicine source for centuries. As spring approached, Native Americans would venture out and establish “sugar camps,” where they would wait for the sap to start flowing, and then harvest it to make maple sugar. The sugar was used as a food source, but also as a valuable trade commodity.

The best time for tree tapping is February and March, when the trees are moving energy (in the form of sugar) up and down their trunk in preparation for spring growth. Ideally, temperatures rise above freezing during the day, but drop below freezing overnight.

All trees produce sugar, but not all of it is good for syrup, or even human consumption. Of course, there is the maple (the Acer family), famous for the table syrup we buy at the grocery store and enjoy on our breakfast pancakes. But in Virginia, several tree species can be enjoyed for their sugary syrup production. Birch, pecan, and walnut trees are just a few other popular choices for tree tapping.

The Process

Thanks to Mother Nature and gravity, tree tapping is a simple, straight-forward process that can be enjoyed by the young, old, and in between. All you’ll need is a drill, spile (a small metal spigot), hammer and collection bucket (ideally one with a lid to keep hungry critters out).

You’ll want to drill a hole into the tree at a slight upward angle, using a drill bit big enough to fit your spile or tap. Most spiles are about 3⁄8 an inch in diameter. Drill a 2.5-inch-deep hole into the tree at a comfortable height for you.

The shavings when you pull the drill out should be light brown in color. If they’re dark, it could mean that the sap wood in that spot isn’t healthy, and you should consider relocating your drill hole. Traditionally, the south side of the tree is considered best for tapping, and results in higher yields, especially if you can place your spile under a large branch. But don’t worry too much about the exact location. If you choose to tap the same tree every year, you’ll need to move the tap at least six inches to the side of last season’s hole.

Using a hammer, tap the spile gently into the hole. You can order a spile online, or use something you have around the house, like clean metal tubing. However, the spile is the ideal tool for the job, and provides an easy way to hang your collection bucket. Once the spile is in place, you may see the sap flow immediately!

Hang your collection bucket from the spile or place it on the ground to catch the dripping sap. You can use just about anything, from five-gallon buckets to milk jugs.

Collection and Syrup Making

The next step is refining the sap into syrup. It’s easy! You’ll just need a pot, a good thermometer, and something to put your syrup in when it’s all done.

Simply boil the sap until the water evaporates and it reaches seven degrees above the boiling point. Of course, your boiling point changes depending on your elevation, so you may need to look it up. Here in Lynchburg, the boiling point is about 210.65-degrees Fahrenheit. Boiling the sap can produce a lot of moisture, so many people like to boil the sap outside on a grill or fire. It should take around three to four hours to boil down.

When you’re ready, pour the syrup into canning jars, or whatever vessel you’ve chosen to store it in. Nothing to it!

Sugaring is a great skill to add to your list of practical homesteading knowledge. Everyone in the family can participate, and when all is said and done, you get to enjoy a sweet treat passed down through the ages.

If you’re interested in learning more, do a little research on tapping other tree species! For example, birch tree sap is also used for sugar and syrup, but more commonly for beverages, glazes, and marinades, and medicinally as an antioxidant and great source of vitamins and minerals.

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