The kids aren’t keen on posting a diary entry this month. Fury is back at school and Sybil, a bit miffed, is still here and has to wait till next week. Since the pandemic was announced they’ve had the best (or worst?) part of a year of home-school, with all its ups and downs. I’ve enjoyed it, mostly; but I’ve been conscious that they’re being starved of peer contact, professional teaching, and Welsh – no matter how much I try to talk to them in the latter, to “level up” my teaching methods, or to act like an eight-year-old.
It’s about a year since my last diary post. I wrote another one – about tree-measuring and lockdown etc. – in autumn; but I entered that into a competition and it won £100. Weirdly, that seemed to be the end of that, and it hasn’t actually been published anywhere, even though the money was received and is by now long gone…
What have I actually done in the last year then? Not much. Taught kids. Built a wardrobe. Published another book no one wants. Another ring if you cut me in half.
For now then, I thought I’d do a post about our second annual attempt at sycamore-tapping.
Yes. Sycamore tapping. The process of drilling into the trunks of Acer pseudoplatanus to extract the rising sap. Apparently you can drink it; or make beer, wine, or syrup from it. This can be done to various trees in early spring. But sycamore (US: sycamore maple) is the best candidate in Landskeria; since we have no other species of Acer, and, perhaps more surprisingly, no birches.
Last year, by way of a science class, the girls and I tapped a couple of trees at the end of March when they were mid-leaf, and we managed a trickle from one or two before plugging the holes and giving up. It was a warm March, and by the time we got around to it the frosts were a distant memory.
On our second attempt, this year, (minus Fury, who is already back at school) we decided to start promptly after what looked likely to be the last frost of the season. They say frozen nights and warm days herald the rising of the sap.
I was somehow under the impression the last frost was the optimum time? Oddly specific; I don’t know where I got that from, or why I thought a tree would know exactly when it had felt the last frost of the season. Perhaps the second-to-last (or third-) is a better bet anyway? It’s probably best to ask the trees…
Here in West Wales, early March is usually a good bet; though I’ve read that late March is the time in other areas of the UK where frost lingers longer; hence last year’s misadventure. Seasons don’t come and go by calendars, as any farmer will tell you. (At least, not by the numbers and words on them.)
So on Monday 8 March we ventured out first thing, boots crunching in the soil, and drilled a few small holes in the trunks of two trees, about three feet up. And…
Nothing! Not a drop of sap. It didn’t occur to me to wait until the ground had actually had a chance to thaw (the temperature was still close to zero at 7am); so when we walked by one of the trees just before lunch and it had a steady trickle of sap darkening its bole, I kicked myself (metaphorically) and ran off back to the house to get my hoses and demijohns…
- One cordless drill with a full battery (or a spare if you’re low) and a flat wood drill bit about 12–15mm diameter (i.e. the size of your hose/tube, or slightly smaller).
- A length of rubber hose (one per container). Last year I used a rigid plastic tube, which was hard to seal around, and not very long. The hoses I have now are a sawn-off length of plastic garden hose, a grey washing-machine hose, and… another hose of some kind, which is a bit small and whose origin remains a mystery. As long as they are flexible (and clean!) they should do the job.
- A demijohn or a large plastic container. Whatever it is, it needs to be able to hold a good few litres, and to be able to sit still and not fall over as it fills up with sap. If you’re going to leave it overnight during a freeze (which I haven’t tried) you need to allow for the possibility that the contents will also freeze, and expand. And if you want enough sap to make syrup you’ll need at least a few of these on the go for a few days.
- Finally, the bit nobody told me about, if you want to stop half your sap leaking away down the trunk – use something to seal around the hole and thus to encourage as much liquid as possible to go into your pipe. Last year I wrapped cling film around and wedged that in, which was okay-ish. This year I sealed around the hose entry point on the bark with… lard. And it worked a treat! (And Frida, our papillon, was only too happy to lick my fingers clean.)
Wait for the buds of the sycamores to look like they’re beginning to go green (which tends to happen as late winter weather starts fading into lengthening days, and frosty mornings give way to sunny afternoons); ideal conditions are supposed to be frozen ground at night and temperatures rising considerably in the day.
Venture out with your kit (and some helpers!) to find some suitable trees. About a metre in circumference at breast height should be a sufficiently mature specimen. If you’re not sure whether it’s a sycamore, check leaf litter; but really, you’ll want to have seen sycamore leaves on it last summer. Trees out in the open are said to have more sap, but we don’t have any of those as our whole garden is semi-woodland. Whatever: they still need water and nutrients, so they still need sap!
If you make a small incision with the spiky bit of the drill, and conditions are right, a bead of sap ought to appear within a few minutes. If it does, drill in about an inch and a half at a slightly inclined angle to encourage the liquid to emerge (and to make angling your hose into your collection vessel easier). Find a secure place for your bottle or demijohn that’s within reach, and plug the hole with one end of the hose while placing the other in the vessel. Once a steady drip has begun in the bottom of the vessel, secure your extraction point on the tree with lard, or whatever else you’re using.
We’ve done this a couple of times now. First day (yesterday) we left two trees tapped between 11am and 6pm, and got just under 4 litres of sap: 2 from each. It tasted good (well, almost entirely like water, but certainly drinkable); but that much sap won’t get you much syrup. Barely 100mls as it turns out! So today we’re tapping again. Three (different) trees, which have been yielding sap since 7am. We’ll check them at 6pm (they were doing fine at 1pm), and if they’re less than half-full we might leave them for the night. You’re supposed to be able to get four or five litres of sap from a sycamore without really harming it. But apparently you shouldn’t use the same tree every year, as it could stunt its growth or make it generally vulnerable to disease and pests, etc. The extraction holes could also allow fungus to get into the tree and cause damage to the crucial outer layers of sapwood; so to lessen the chances of this happening it’s important to plug the holes once you’ve finished extracting – ideally with a hardwood dowel or peg; but a bit of cork or a not-too-rotten stick might also suffice. You don’t want to be introducing dirt and fungus into the wound; that’s the main thing. So make sure it’s clean! But you probably shouldn’t seal it with anything unnaturally impermeable either (eg silicone/plastic) as this could trap undesirable entities within the seal.
None of the trees we tapped last year reacted noticeably badly to their experience. They all went to leaf and carried on producing new growth. But then, we did tap late, and got very little sap. I’ll be intrigued to see how this year’s more successful tapping affects the development of the trees through the spring and summer seasons.
Last year’s holes had no trouble healing either; but the incisions do leave scars, and the ingress into the sapwood won’t recommend the lumber from the sycamore (at such time as it falls, or is cut down) to your local carpenter.
We’re still at the early stages of this experiment, but it’s already apparent that we can get a good three or four litres of sap from a decent-size sycamore in our garden. It’s also clear that it’ll take at least five (probably more) sycamores to render a single bottle of syrup! Our first taste tests were encouraging: it’s certainly as good as any shop-bought maple syrup as far as I can tell; and slightly different in flavour. But it’s also abundantly clear why you don’t see a whole lot of sycamore syrup on supermarket shelves. This is labour-intensive. You have to boil away a lot of water to get syrup. Open a window!
We’ve enjoyed it this time. If we can get a bottle (or two?) a year without devastating the local sycamore population, I expect this might become an annual ritual: like our wild-garlic pesto month, our blackberry jam weekend, and, of course, the annual St Dogmael’s Day goat-massacre.
Last year’s cadastral survey revealed that we have 18 “large” or “very large” sycamores here, with numerous medium ones on the way to maturity too. They don’t live forever; at least three of the bigger specimens here have split trunks, showing where the trees are being gradually hollowed out by aggressive fungus. This isn’t necessarily a death-knell, mind you; those with the split trunks still comprise a considerable proportion of the Landskerian canopy, come summer, and they can live on for decades like this as the heartwood rots but the sapwood continues to grow and expand.
I’ll keep an eye on them. Maybe the leaves of those we tap will be a bit smaller this year? But I’m optimistic for their ability to endure it; they seem hardy enough…
A Velky: ringing in spring, but late for Pancake Day, 2021.
UPDATE: we got 2 bottles! So about 500ml from 25l taken from 8 trees. (Big Barbie, Black Knight, Caveman, Chewie, Cuckoo, Gravedigger, Pennywise, and Sentinel). This is what it looked like:
And it tasted great. Not exactly like maple; more like butterscotch, and definitely better than our usual Aldi maple syrup (no offence, Aldi). Next up: the wild garlic pesto. Which I will not blog about.