By Audrey Stallsmith
The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show
On every tree a bucket with a lid,
And on black ground a bearskin rug of snow.
“Evening in a Sugar Orchard,” Robert Frost
The coming of spring has always been symbolized for me by the frothy bubbling of maple sap over a fire. My older brother, like many other farmers before him, once supplemented his income with seasonal activities such as fur trapping and syrup making.
The first colonists learned all about the latter process from Native Americans, who gashed maples with tomahawks and let the sap drip into birch-wood troughs. They frequently used freezing rather than heat to concentrate the syrup, skimming off a layer of ice each morning. But the colonists preferred to boil the sap in kettles, and discovered that smaller holes and spouts made of hollow sumac or elder did less damage to the trees.
Not having a proper sugarhouse, my brother constructed an open-sided shed and—in late February and early March—cooked his syrup in a large rectangular pan over an open fire. He did, however, replace many of the lidded pails traditionally used to collect sap with more modern plastic tubing that connected several trees at once and emptied into large tubs or garbage pails.
I still recall one March day when the temperature shot suddenly up to seventy, and even those receptacles began to overflow. All family members available were pressed into service, scurrying thither and yon with every empty container we could find!
Before the 1800’s, colonists usually cooked the syrup completely down until it turned granular, since that sugar was the only kind they had. These days, of course, both maple syrup and maple sugar tend to be much more rare--and expensive!
This can be explained by the fact that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. And, since the flow requires freezing nights followed by sunny days, it’s an unpredictable sort of “crop.” That flow is supposed to cease at about the same time that the first spring peepers are heard. (For all you city folks out there: peepers are frogs that tend to make an awful racket when rain is expected.)
The maple foretells spring in other ways as well. In “May Day,” Sara Teasdale describes the first “red, small leaves of the maple” as being “clenched like a hand.” Perhaps that curled-up state of the early foliage is why maple stands, in the Language of Flowers, for “reserve.”
In another poem, “Spring Torrents,” Teasdale asks “Will it always be like this until I am dead,/ Every spring must I bear it all again/ With the first red haze of the budding maple boughs,/And the first sweet-smelling rain?”
Maples are definitely acclimated to changing seasons, being most commonly found in North America, northern India, and Japan. The latter country, of course, has produced many of the modern fancy types and Canada has made the maple leaf its national symbol. Although most varieties do produce sap, the sugar or hard maple (AKA acer saccharum) is the one most often employed for syrup making.
Acer is a Latin term meaning “sharp,” and may derive from the fact that the hard wood was once used for spear hafts. As Gerard noted, “The maple is a beautifull and high tree, with a barke of a mean smoothnesse. . .it sendeth forth on every side very many goodly boughes and branches, which make an excellent shadow against the heat of the Sun, upon which are great, broad, and cornered leaves, much like to those of the Vine (grape). . .”
Because those leaves are attractive to aphids, they frequently show “varnish” smears, which are actually the honeydew left behind by the bugs. Maple foliage turns yellow in autumn and frequently reverts to the springtime color of red before it drops, making this one of the gaudiest dressers among the trees!
My father often boils his sassafras or spicewood in maple sap, which is also considered a spring tonic. He thereby gets two bracers in one! Both the sap and a tea made from the maple’s inner bark are supposed to be good for the liver, spleen, and kidneys.
The tree’s seeds, which come two at a time in winged “fruits” called samoras, are said to be edible if hulled and boiled. Farmers once stored their apples and root vegetables in cellars between layers of maple leaves. On the more questionable side, maple is also supposed to repel bats—and make good dowsing rods!
But it is, of course, most famous for the delectable syrup it produces. Being far superior to imitators, that are sometimes scornfully called pole syrups, the true maple elixir can turn breakfast into a truly ambrosial experience! As you can see below, it even worked its way into one of my own spring poems.
Maple sap boils, bubbles,
Woodsmoke writhes like an incantation
Over a magic brew.
An impudent orange crocus
Shoulders aside bleached leaves.
A tousled cloud
Chases a coquettish sun.
And the birds burble
With nervous, incredulous laughter
At the shocking behavior
Plant plate and background is from Important Forest Trees of the Eastern United States by C. Frank Brookman, courtesy of the Federal Forest Service.