Making maple syrup from one of our Southern Red (Swamp) Maples is probably the most interesting and enlightening thing I’ve done in a while. Interesting to the point of being an epiphany. That sounds overly dramatic, but if you stick with me, I’ll explain. I grew up in the south, central North Carolina to be exact. As a child, I can remember having headaches so bad that my mother would put me in her bed with an ice pack alternated with a moist heat heating pad. That’s how young I was. It wasn’t until I was in my mid 20’s that a friend suggested maybe my migraines were actually caused by allergies. It wasn’t anything I had considered before because allergies are usually associated with sneezing, runny nose, etc. Long story short, I went to the Allergist, they tested me and found that I was allergic to Red Maple pollen. That’s kind-of inconvenient when you live where I do and there’s one growing every six feet or so. The season here only lasts from mid February to the end of March, but that’s still a long time to feel like crap. I began taking allergy shots and making a point to at least not sit under the Maples and it all but stopped my migraines. That lasted about 10 years and then life got in the way and I stopped the weekly immunotherapy. I lived in different places and depending on where I was and the proximity of Maple trees, it had a big effect on whether I had migraines or not. Fast forward to where we live now and there are Red Maples everywhere next to our house along the creek. We even have one that is about 5 feet from our back door that’s blooming and I’m looking at right now. When they bloom, I give them plenty of space and simply stay out from underneath them as much as possible. It’s the only way we can coexist and I’m ok with that. I’ve also learned over the years that not only am I allergic to the pollen from the spring blooms, but I’ll also get a splitting headache if we burn maple in our woodstove during the winter months. It never fails and according to a study done by the University of Illinois, it’s not just in my head, so to speak. Who knew? So, to tie all this together, a couple of weeks ago I read an article written by a fellow homesteader who talked about tapping not just typical maple syrup trees, but Red Maples, Sycamores and Hickory. I contemplated it only a couple of days and decided to give it a try and make an effort to get to know the one I thought was my enemy. What an experience. An epiphany, no exaggeration, and an exercise in growth in my journey with natural cures. What started out as an interest in a sustainable resource for the homestead turned into a whole lot more. I did some more reading on how to tap trees, gathered a few things we had on hand and below, as Andy Rooney would say, is “the rest of the story”.
Acer rubrum goes by many names, Red Maple, Swamp Maple, Soft Maple, Water Maple, etc. and it makes an unbelievably tasty syrup, less maple-like than the Vermont maple syrup and far, far better than the imitation stuff you buy in the store. I admit, I’m a little biased regarding how good this syrup tasted, but the finished product was truly amazing!
What I had easy access to was copper pipe, a grinder and a hand drill, so that’s what I used. In hindsight, if I do this again, I’ll invest in a real maple tree tap for the sake of the tree. I found a kit on Amazon for only about $11 and think that’s definitely the way I’ll go. **Link removed to Edit several years later*** I’ve tried a bunch and these are my favorite: Tap My Trees – Spiles Kit .
The picture below is of the 1/4″ copper pipe that I ground a spout into. I didn’t have a saw blade that was suitable and the grinder seemed to be the thing that would give me slow control over how the spout progressed. It’s not pretty, but it worked just fine for a first attempt.
When I knew I had several days of 20 degree nights and 40 degree days, I used the hand drill to make a 5/8″ downward facing hole into the southern side of one of our maples, about 2 feet above a root “foot”, where the flow of sap is supposed to be the greatest.
I then gently tapped the spout into the tree with a rubber mallet going to a depth of approximately 1 and 1/4 inch. The flow of sap was virtually immediate and after sitting with the tree a while, it was agreed that I would only collect sap until the next morning and see what happened. From when I put in the tap at 3pm until I removed the tap at noon the next day, she had provided 1 and 2/3 cups of sap. Just enough for me to ultimately wind up with 2 Tablespoons of syrup and more than enough to give me a totally different perspective of one I’d previously thought of as “unwelcome” in my proximity.
Having no more sap than I did, it was easy to reduce the sap in a small pot on the stove top set at medium heat. The 1 and 2/3 cups of sap took a little over 40 minutes to reduce down to syrup. I started out with a measuring stick to calculate the percentage that would have to be cooked down, but that wasn’t necessary, it was definitely clear when it became syrup.
I can add, for the record, if you’re allergic to Red Maples, cooking down the syrup WILL give you a splitting headache, just like the fresh pollen or burning the wood. I would’ve rather done without that, but it spurred another thought. I successfully took allergy shots back in the 90’s. Would taking a daily spoonful of this maple syrup for immunotherapy have similar success to what others find in taking a spoonful of honey? It’s widely known that local honey is good for general spring allergies. Could this be a version of specific immunotherapy for people like me? It’s at least worth exploring. It makes you wonder, and I believe this experience/experiment has given me a whole different glimpse into making medicine, whole person wellness and our fellow inhabitors, right outside the door. They may not be who we assume they are.