A Day at the River Bend Sugar Bush – Part I

With unseasonably warm weather ahead of us for the next few weeks, the staff and volunteers at River Bend Nature Center are preparing for one of the most exciting times of the year—maple syrup season!

As temperatures rise above freezing during the day, but drop below freezing at night, some incredible unseen changes take place under the bark of our forest’s trees. To understand this change takes a bit of knowledge about a tree’s inner workings as well as some basic knowledge of physics. Trees are composed of several layers beneath their bark—these layers include the xylem (sapwood) and the phloem. The phloem transports nutrients down the tree, while the xylem transports nutrients up. When temperatures rise above freezing, pressure builds up inside the trunk, forcing sap out of any wounds or tapping holes (with spiles as shown below). Alternatively, at night when the temperatures fall, the pressure drops and creates suction, drawing water into the tree through the roots. This suction replenishes the sap in the tree and allows it to flow again during the next bout of warm temperatures.

 

spile.jpg
Source: http://www.rmgmaple.com/ZenCart/index.php?main_page=page_3

 

What is a sugar bush?

A sugar bush is a portion of forest that is utilized for the production of maple syrup. It is characterized by a predominance of maple trees. Other species may be present, but the majority of the canopy consists of a combination of sugar, red, black, and other maple varieties. The trees tend to be older, and the same trees may have been tapped for years. During the syrup season, there is usually a layer of snow on the ground, and light snows may still fall (referred to as sugar snows) during the season. Sap production will taper off as temperatures continue to rise, and the sap is no longer collected when the buds begin to burst. After the syrup season is over, a flush of wildflowers often appears between the trunks of the large trees, taking advantage of the sunlight coming through the empty canopy. In the full green of summer, the sugar bush will be cool and shady, followed by a colorful display of autumn leaves.

River Bend’s sugar bush can be found primarily along the south branch of the Owl trail, and very soon sap collection will be going full steam.

 

 

equipment.png
Source: Stephanie Rathsack

Today at the sugar bush, the season is just getting started. With a cleaning and inventory of all the necessary supplies, we set out into the woods to visit a few of the larger trees. After sliding precariously down icy paths and heading into the cooler cover of the trees, we reached the River Bend Sugar Bush. And down, close to the river, a few tall black maples stand with distinguishable scars on their massive trunks. These trees have been tapped by River Bend staff and volunteers for years and are a reliable source of sap almost every season. The scars from past years where the holes had been drilled are faintly visible in the bark of the trees. They look a little like tree belly buttons. These old wounds need to be avoided when putting in a new spile, because any scar tissue might have redirected the flow of sap. We measure up and over from the most recent scar before drilling into the tree. The shavings spiral out as we drill deeper, and some look and feel a bit damp—a sure sign of sap beginning to flow!

drilling.png
Source: Stephanie Rathsack

 

With the addition of a spile and a blue sap bag, the tree is ready for the syrup season.

side view.png
Source: Stephanie Rathsack

 

 

This process will be repeated almost eighty times, and we’ll find ourselves visiting the sugar bush every day, stomping through the snow to visit each tree to collect the sap, with a bucket in each hand, continuing a tradition that’s been going on for hundreds of years.

 

old.jpg                           new.png
Source: Collections Online                                                   Source: Stephanie Rathsack
Minnesota Historical Society

 

Want to learn more about maple syrup, its history, and the transformation from sap to syrup? River Bend will be offering several programs now through the beginning of April, many with a chance to taste some real syrup, or to tap a tree yourself!

Maple syrup workshops will be offered March 8th and March 11th, the maple syrup open house is planned for April 1st, and the Maple Syrup Fun Run is scheduled for May 6th.

Check our website and Facebook for updates on dates and times. Maple sap is temperature-dependent, so all events are subject to change.

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