Box elder trees can be tapped for maple-like syrup
Moorhead - The box elder may be the Rodney Dangerfield of the tree world. Dismissed for its irregular form, weak wood and association with box elder bugs, the lowly tree gets no respect. But the prolific woody plant's beauty may be more than bark...
Moorhead - The box elder may be the Rodney Dangerfield of the tree world.
Dismissed for its irregular form, weak wood and association with box elder bugs, the lowly tree gets no respect.
But the prolific woody plant's beauty may be more than bark-deep. As a relative to the maple, the box elder's sap can be collected for a slightly tangy, antioxidant-rich maple syrup.
Legend has it that early Native Americans, who originated the tree-tapping tradition, actually preferred the taste of box elder sap over saps from other maples, wrote Minnesota naturalist Carol McElroy in 2006.
"It kind of tastes like marshmallows," says Noreen Thomas, a Moorhead organic farmer who tapped several box elder trees this spring. "By far, it's much better than the imitation-maple cheap stuff."
Admittedly, we're on the tail end of this region's "maple sugaring" season, which usually takes place from mid-March to early April. But the unseasonably cold temperatures of late have prompted some enthusiasts to try collecting sap through this weekend.
"Now with the forecast of freezing nights, we're going to try again," says Steve Furuseth, a retired teacher whose wife, Arlene, runs Furuwood Sugarbush, a small maple syrup operation, north of Detroit Lakes, Minn. "It's run so little this year, we thought we'd try to squeeze a little bit more (from trees) out in the woods."
The ideal conditions for sap flow are when nighttime mercury dips to 32 or below and days bring sun and 40-something temperatures.
During the winter, dormant trees store their water and nutrients in their root systems. As temperatures rise and daylight increases, the clear, slightly sweet sap - comprised of water and nutrients in the form of sugar - flows up from the root system through the tree to bring nourishment to its buds, McElroy writes.
When nighttime temperatures fall to below freezing, the tree sends most of its sap back down to the roots to store until the next warm day. By tapping into the tree's vascular system, people are able to catch some of its sap as it moves through the tree.
So late in the season, people may have the most luck drawing sap from trees in the shade or the woods, Thomas says. They also need to make sure the trees' buds aren't green and ready to burst. Once this starts, the sap will develop an unpleasant chlorophyll taste, she says.
Only certain trees work
Trees can only be tapped in a narrow northern band of the United States - which extends from Vermont to Minnesota - as well as parts of Canada, Thomas says.
David P. Frankhauser, a biology/chemistry professor at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College, says maple syrup has been produced since the pre-Columbian era in America.
"American natives would gash the trees, collect the sap, let it partially freeze to enrich the sap and then boil it down, sometimes by dropping heated stones into the sap," Frankhauser writes in his paper, "Making Maple Syrup."
Trees suitable for tapping include all members of the maple family, as well as some walnut, hickories, sycamore and sweet birch. But sugar maple is considered the Cadillac of the maple syrup world. It contains 2 percent sugar content - the highest concentration of all the maples. Box elder contains half as much sugar, although Frankhauser claims its sap is "especially delicious ... tasting like a slightly sweet spring water."
In his book "Stalking the Good Life," naturalist Euell Gibbons rated syrups produced by different species of maple tree. He ranked sugar maples as producing the sweetest, most intensely flavored syrup, Norway maples for producing the second best syrup and box elder for yielding the third best. He graded the silver maple as the last, saying it tastes almost exactly like corn syrup.
However, Tom Harvey, an intern on the Thomases' organic farm, made syrup from a silver maple owned by his parents, Dr. Jeffrey and Cheryl Harvey, and found it extremely tasty. "It tastes like candy," says Harvey.
The time of year will also affect the type of syrup you get. The earliest part of the season produces a honey-colored, delicately flavored maple. But late season produces dark amber syrup - dark as coffee, with an intense maple flavor.
Regardless of when it's collected, real maple syrup has nutritional benefits. In a study just reported at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers analyzed the various compounds in maple syrup. They found 54 antioxidants, including five new ones.
From sap to syrup
There are numerous methods for tapping sap and making syrup. But, at its simplest, sap can be collected for less than a dollar, Thomas says.
The best candidates for tapping are healthy trees, at least a foot in diameter, with large canopies, Furuseth says. (It doesn't hurt trees to tap them, although you'll want to remove the tap each year so the wound can heal properly, Thomas says.)
It takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make about a gallon of syrup, says John Nowatzki, a Fargo man who taps trees by his family cottage near Minnesota's Eagle Lake. But due to box elder sap's lower sugar content, you would only get about a pint out of 40 gallons of sap.
To tap a tree, drill a 2-inch hole in the tree at waist level. Drill at a slightly upward slant so gravity will help the sap run out. Stick the tap - available at hardware stores like Mac's - in the hole. If the tap is running, the turnings will appear damp, and it will almost immediately start to drip.
Place a clean bucket or plastic milk jug under the tap to collect the sap. (You can secure it by hanging it from the tap, propping it on a barrel or tying it to the tree, Thomas says.)
To boil down the sap - reducing it to its sweetest, most concentrated form - use a wide, shallow, heavy-duty steel pan. Many prefer to boil the syrup outside over a hearth of concrete blocks because it is a time-intensive process that generates a lot of steam.
Once the sap boils down to syrup consistency, some will move it to a stovetop inside to "finish off."
The syrup is nearly done when it boils with an oily appearance. The temperature should be between 219 degrees and 223 degrees Fahrenheit. You will have to watch it like a hawk as it nears this temperature, as it burns very easily.
"It's a lot of work for a little quart," Thomas says. "But it's a fun thing to do with your kids, and tapping trees really is one of the first signs of spring."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525