The weather is warming up, greeting us with temperatures above freezing for more than just a few consecutive days each week. The birds' cheery, singsong chirping alerts me as I encounter the fresh air outside the door. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to catch a glimpse of green on lawns and trees.
It's official: The first day of spring has arrived.
As winter continues to gradually melt away, snow and ice drip from the canopies of the trees, collecting muddy puddles on the ground below. Tiny, green leaf buds force life into dormant limbs and branches, presenting the beginning of a vibrant, spring color palette you've been anticipating since fall's last leaf fell to the ground.
But your maple trees, in particular, have been waiting all winter long for you to tap into their best-kept secret: A vat of sweet, sugary goodness they've been brewing for months - sap.
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According to the University of Maine Extension, more than 100 species of maple trees exist throughout the world. The U.S. cultivates approximately 14 species of maples, including 10 that grow in Canada, where a red maple leaf adorns the national flag.
The sugar maple (hard maple) taps in at the top: Its sap contains an average sugar content of about 2 percent. The typical backyard sap producers - red, black and silver maples - may require twice as much sap to yield the same amount of syrup, while other maple species, such as ornamentals, do not produce the sap required for maple syrup.
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Now is just about the perfect time to tap your maples. The sap flows best when daytime temperatures rise above freezing and nighttime temperatures drop below freezing, but tapping time varies from region to region.
Healthy trees, free from scar tissue and lawn equipment injuries, return the best sap flow. Look for maples with trunks at least 12 inches in diameter that also receive the most sun. To tap your tree, you'll need to drill a hole in the trunk, then insert the spile and attach a bucket below the hole - the tree will do the rest.
At its boiling point, the water from maple sap concentrates it into a sweet substance to form maple syrup. You can expect 5 to 15 gallons of sap per tap per season - what a sappy tree! But how much can your maple tree take before it taps out?
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According to Tap My Trees, a leading website for home maple sugaring, the number of taps a maple tree can handle depends on trunk diameter: one tap for 12- to 20-inch diameter trees; two taps for 21- to 27-inch diameter trees; and three taps for 27-inch diameter or larger trees.
If you're concerned about permanently damaging the tree, don't fret - tapping holes are wounds from which your tree will readily recover. Although less healthy trees may take up to three years to heal their wounds, vigorous trees' bark will seal wounds in no more than a year.
How sweet of the maple to reward us with its delicious, syrupy concoction this season. Who knew such a tree could provide us with benefits year-round: cool shade in summer, vibrant foliage in fall and sugary sap in spring - all from the comfort of your backyard?