Food from the Wild
An amazing bounty of food can be foraged from vacant lots and other wasted spaces. On a recent walk around a post-industrial city that suffers from some neglect, I foraged a fabulous array of edibles — wild grapes, cornelian cherries (fruits of the cornelian dogwood tree, Cornus mas), and gumi (fruits of the invasive autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata). In the latter case, I consider my harvesting to also be a service to the community, as it keeps the plant from spreading farther afield. In the spring, there is pokeweed, young shoots of tender Japanese knotweed, ramps (wild leeks), and fiddlehead ferns here. In the woods outside of town, I’ve found a number of mushrooms, including chanterelles, hedgehogs, bear’s heads, and shaggy manes. When you begin to understand the edibility of the plants and fungi you pass by every day, you start to see potential food sources everywhere you turn.
Although we have a tendency to think of cultivated food crops as our only source of nutrition, wild foods can be a good supplement.
When you consider fishing and hunting as forms of foraging, you can envision ways to supply yourself with all four food groups from the wild. Even the fifth group — sugary treats — can be foraged by making maple syrup or keeping honeybees (this last is really more a form of livestock than a way to forage, but it does have wild origins).
There are caveats, of course. First of all, you must know what you’re eating! That can’t be stressed enough. Find an expert in your area, take a class, buy a good identification guide, and do some studying before you get started. Start with something easily identifiable, like domesticated food plants that have escaped cultivation, and move on to wild plants once you’ve gained some experience.
And always be sure to get permission from landowners before you set out. While they probably won’t be opposed to your digging up dandelions from their front lawn, they might wonder just what you’re up to if you don’t take the time to introduce yourself first.
The rewards of keeping bees are many: You’ll have all the honey you need for cooking and table; you’ll have a supply for wonderful gifts; your garden will be pollinated by your own bees, and will grow better for it; and you may eventually earn money for your honey. Best of all, you will have a fascinating hobby.
What You Need to Get Started
The location of your hives should be selected with care. Check your zoning laws to be sure that beekeeping is permitted. Choose a quiet, sunny, secluded spot. Bees follow a landing and takeoff pattern in front of the hive — be sure that their flight path doesn’t cross a sidewalk, road, or walkway. If your hive will not be near a natural source of water, provide one.
Time. Beekeeping demands little time and fits in well with other weekend chores.
Timing. In northern states, it is important to get your bees early in the season. They must have time to build their combs and raise new bees so that the hive population will be large at the season of the main honey flow. Arrange to have the bees delivered about when fruit trees bloom in your area.
Knowledge. A little bit of knowledge will get you started, and you’ll know it all. Begin by following a good manual; from there, you can explore the subject in as much depth as you want.
Bees. Bees can be obtained in many ways. You can buy them from mail-order beekeepers. You may be able to purchase an established hive from a nearby beekeeper. Or you might have a nearby beekeeper place a swarm of bees in a hive for you. If you buy an established hive, ask for a certificate of inspection signed by the state apiary inspector stating that the hive is free from disease.
The most popular bees to start with are Italian bees. They are industrious, and a good queen will quickly build up a strong hive. Start with a 3-pound package of bees (about 10,000 bees).
Equipment. Bee equipment firms sell beginner’s kits. If you buy one, make certain that you get all of the items in the equipment box before you begin setup.
Step by Step
Keeping bees is not complicated, but upkeep is essential, and a manual on beekeeping will be a necessary companion to teach you the tricks as you go along. Here is a rundown of the basic steps that a novice bee-keeper will need to learn.
a package of bees
Your basic start-up needs are listed below. The cost may vary, depending on your regional supplier.
• A standard 10-frame hive with bottom board, entrance block, outside cover, inside cover, frames, and foundation
• A 3-pound package of bees, with queen
• A bee veil (to protect your face)
• A bee smoker
• A hive tool (for prying apart the hive and frames)
• A feeder (to feed the bees sugar syrup until they can support themselves with nectar)
• A bee brush
• A beginner’s book on beekeeping
Installing bees in the hive. A few general hints: Don’t rush. Work calmly. Install the bees in the evening. And remember that they aren’t inclined to sting you after they are fed. Follow this basic installation procedure:
Prepare the hive. Before you get your bees, the hive should be assembled, painted, and placed in its permanent location. Remove five frames to make an open chamber. Fill the entrance feeder with syrup.
Get your package of bees. As soon as you get the bees, feed them. They’ll need to subsist on sugar water until they start producing honey. Install them as soon as possible; hold them no more than two or three days.
Get yourself ready. Light the smoker. Don your bee attire and net. Have a hive tool and bee brush handy.
Open the shipping cage. Pry off the cover of the cage with the hive tool. Remove the queen cage. Replace the cover.
Look at the queen cage. Get a good look at the queen, so you’ll learn to recognize her. Place the queen in the hive.
Put the bees in the hive. Carefully replace the wire frames. Working gently, so that you don’t pinch the bees, replace the cover.
Here’s the big question: Will you get stung? Yes. You almost certainly will get stung from time to time, but after a while you’ll begin to tolerate it pretty easily. Many stings can be avoided. Here are some tips:
• Work in the hive during good weather when the bees are out of the hive and gathering nectar.
• Wear protective gear and light-colored clothing. Bees tend to crawl into dark places, so have tight wristbands on your sleeves and tuck the bottom of your trousers into your socks.
• Use a smoker when working with bees. Watch the reaction of the bees to the smoke. You will soon learn the minimum amount that can be used to subdue them.
• When you get stung, remove the stinger quickly by scraping it with the hive tool or your fingernail. Don’t try to pull it out with your fingers, as this will only force more venom into your body.
• Finally, make certain you are not allergic to bee stings. Most beekeepers eventually develop immunity to stings. If you become allergic to bee stings and the effects of the sting grow worse each time, consult an allergist. Such an allergy can become deadly.
How Bees Make Honey and Wax
The nectar that bees collect is generally one-half to three-fourths water. The bees evaporate most of the water by adding enzymes to it. These enzymes change the nectar into honey. The bees seal the honey into cells of the honeycomb.
Beeswax begins as a liquid exuded from the abdomen of worker bees. As it hardens into tiny wax scales, the worker bees use it to build honeycomb.
Beekeepers often provide their bees with honeycomb foundations made of sheets of beeswax. They fit into hive frames and become the base of the honeycomb. These foundations enable bees to speed up comb construction and provide a pattern for straight and easy-to-remove comb.
Confine the bees to the hive. Plug the hive with the entrance feeder and a handful of grass. Check several days later. Replenish the syrup, if necessary.
After about a week. Using a little smoke, remove the covers and check the queen.
Maintaining the hive. The hive should be maintained about once a week throughout the spring and summer to prevent feeding problems or preparations for swarming. The best time to work on the hive is on a sunny day. Here’s what it takes:
Put on your protective clothing.
Light the smoker.
Open the hive. Pry it open, using the smoker to subdue the bees.
Check frames. Look for cell building and honey production.
Keep feeding. Replenish sugar syrup until bees have a large store of honey.
Check on the queen. Look for eggs and larvae to be sure that the queen is producing.
Add to the hive. When the hive becomes full of honey and bees, add extra stories, called “supers,” to the hive.
Watch for swarming. Check the bottom edges of the hive for large queen cells, which may indicate that the hive intends to swarm (evacuate the hive body en masse).
There are several things you can do to reduce the chance of swarming: Provide room by adding supers before they are needed; requeen every year; and replace honeycombs in the brood chamber with empty cells for egg laying.
The Flavors of Honey
There are as many flavors of honey as there are flowers. In early summer, honey comes from wild berries and locust trees. The main honey flow in the northern part of the United States occurs during July, when a delicious light honey made from the blossoms of clover, alfalfa, and wildflowers can be harvested. As the season progresses, honey made from the later flowers, goldenrod and aster, is darker in color and has a more pronounced flavor. Honey can be as dark as molasses, to which those who know buckwheat honey can attest. Its dark color and distinctive flavor cannot be mistaken. If one type of flower predominates in an area, the honey will have its flavor. You have probably seen orange blossom, tupelo, or sourwood honey for sale.
Harvesting the honey. The flowers have bloomed and fed the bees. The bees have painstakingly collected and stored the honey. You’ve placed super on super on super, and they are all filled. What next? It’s time to enjoy the fruits of your bees’ labors.
The honey in the frames is ready to be taken when the bees have capped it with a layer of wax. It has a finished, packaged look, and none of the honey will leak out.
Removing the super. You will take honey from the super on the top of the hive. Fit a bee escape into the inner cover and wait 24 hours, so that most of the bees will have time to find their way down into the hive. Take the super off the hive.
Brush off any lingering bees near the hive entrance. Take the super inside to work on it.
Taking the comb honey. You’re now ready to package your honey in one of its most delicious and natural states. You will need the following materials:
• a wire cake rack, 12 by 18 inches
• a baking pan, 12 by 18 inches or larger
• containers for the honey
• a knife for cutting the comb
• a spatula to move the chunks to the containers
Using the knife, cut the comb from the frame and place this large chunk on the rack. Cut smaller chunks to fit your containers. Separate the chunks and let the honey drain from the sides. Then place them in the containers and seal.
Another method of packing cut comb honey is to cut the chunks and place them in widemouthed glass jars. Heat some honey to 150°F (66°C), let it cool, and fill a jar with it. This type of pack is commonly called chunk honey. The honey in these jars tends to crystallize quickly, even though you have heated it to prevent this.
Cut comb honey can be conveniently packed in square plastic boxes, available from bee equipment suppliers.
Sharing with the bees. Remember that you should always leave enough honey in the hive to allow the bees to winter over comfortably. Requirements vary throughout the country, so precise amounts are difficult to compute. Consult your local Cooperative Extension agent.
If you love the idea of getting something for nothing, foraging for wild edibles may be a good way for you to supplement your homegrown food. Since most wild foods have such a short season, foraging is a fabulous way to stay in tune with the seasons and be more in touch with the natural world, not to mention the exercise you’ll get from all that walking. And foraging isn’t just about picking berries and nibbling roadside weeds — it also includes fishing and hunting for game.
There are a few caveats, however. Unlike eating vegetables from your garden, harvesting wild foods can be deadly if you’re not fastidious about identifying the plants and mushrooms you’ve collected. Use a respected guidebook, take classes, and seek out an expert to give you a lesson on what’s edible in your area. In short, do what you need to in order to become properly trained before you start picking.
If you’re interested in fishing and hunting, you’ll need to check with your local branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service to find out what the regulations are, when the hunting and fishing seasons are, and what kinds of permits you’ll need (see Resources, page 340). Clearly, these activities require more training and special equipment than foraging for blackberries does. Again, take the time for training.
Find a Good Guide
If you are interested in learning enough about plants to harvest some wild edibles, you will need a good field guide, preferably one that addresses the plants in your geographical area. Some guides have photographs, while others have drawings. Usually the drawings are in color. The quality varies rather dramatically from guide to guide. A book with clear photographs may be your best bet, especially if the photographs show the plant you are interested in at different stages of development, since a plant may look entirely different during each part of its life cycle. A good drawing, however, is better than a poor photograph. You want to be able to clearly see leaves, stems, stalks, and flowers. The guide should also provide information about habitat, look-alike plants, possible toxicity, and methods of harvesting. (See Resources, page 340, for a list of recommended reading and Web sites.)
Get Permission First
If you’re considering venturing onto another person’s land to forage, be sure to contact the landowner and obtain the proper permission before starting. The same holds true for public places — many national and state parks prohibit visitors from taking anything outside the boundaries of the park. Get permission before you harvest.
Harvesting wild foods can be deadly if you’re not fastidious about identifying the plants and mushrooms you’ve collected.
Foraging requires very few tools. The few that are helpful are probably in your kitchen or garden shed. A trowel is useful for digging up roots. A jackknife or paring knife with a sheath is also necessary, as is a good pair of leather work gloves. You will need something in which to carry home your treasures. A basket or cloth bag is preferable to paper, which will fall apart when wet, or plastic, which will cause your tender greens to wilt.
There are two big issues to keep in mind when harvesting wild foods. The first is toxicity. Mother Nature is not always benign. Just because a berry is blue doesn’t make it a blueberry. It may be a pokeberry, which is fatal if ingested in large amounts by a child. Don’t eat anything unless you are absolutely certain about its identity and edibility. Stick to the plants you know well, and try to learn about one or two new species each year. Rely on your field guide in addition to the advice of an expert forager before you eat something new.
Even knowing that a plant is generally edible doesn’t ensure that it is edible at every stage or that every part is edible. Some plants are tasty and healthful only when cooked, and a few require several changes of water. This is where a good field guide and a knowledgeable mentor are essential.
Mushrooms require special consideration, as the results of a mistake won’t be just uncomfortable; they can be deadly. If you want to learn about mushrooms, join an established mushroom club and learn from experts. If you’re interested in growing mushrooms, there are kits available that enable you to grow almost any variety you like. The kits are fairly foolproof if you follow the directions carefully. Mushrooms can be grown in basement areas that are not good for growing anything else.
If you come home with a bounty of greens, wash them well in clean water. Greens gathered near waterways can be infested with giardia, a nasty intestinal parasite carried by beavers and other animals and passed into the water with their feces. Soil can carry a number of germs and bacteria, not just on tubers but also on the leaves and stems of many plants. Fortunately, a good scrub with plenty of clean water will remove them.
In general, avoid collecting plants from heavily trafficked areas, along roadsides, and from other potentially polluted spots.
The next issue in harvesting is protecting not you but the plant. Don’t harvest any plant on the rare or endangered list. If any plant is locally scarce (not necessarily endangered but just not abundant where you live), take small amounts from as large a grouping as possible. Leave behind enough of the plant that it can reproduce.
If you’ve ever come into contact with stinging nettles, you’ll undoubtedly recall with dread the swift, nasty rash that they caused when they touched the skin. However, you might be very pleasantly surprised by how mellow and delicious nettles are when they are cooked. They lose their characteristic prickle and taste like a mild, tender spinach.
Wearing long sleeves and rubber kitchen or gardening gloves, pick whole nettles when they are very young, or pick just the small-leaved tops of more mature plants. Using tongs, swish the nettles in a bowl of cool water, then drop them directly into a pot of boiling water. Do not touch the nettles or try to chop them or work with them until they are cooked.
If you exercise common sense and take the time to learn about the foods in your area, foraging is a wonderful way to get closer to nature and understand more about our place in it. You probably won’t ever need to rely on the woods, pastures, and streams to provide you with all you need for sustenance, but it’s good to know where there is a ready supply, free for the picking.
Look for these favorite wild foods:
• Cherries (wild)
• Crab apples
• Fox grapes
• Lamb’s quarters
• Leeks (wild)
• Rose hips
• White pine (for tea)
Rose Hip Jam
4 cups rose hip pulp
5 cups sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1. For the pulp, collect ripe rose hips, preferably just after the first frost. Wash and stem the hips. In a medium-sized saucepan, cover rose hips with water; simmer until soft, about 15 minutes. Run pulp through a food mill or sieve.
2. Combine the pulp, sugar, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer until the mixture reaches 220°F (104°C). Ladle into hot jars.
3. Adjust lids and process in a boiling-water-bath canner (see page 80) for 5 minutes.
Yield: 2 to 3 pints
It is likely that your neighbors will be delighted should you ask to collect dandelions from their lawns (providing their lawns haven’t been sprayed). Be sure to gather from environmentally clean areas at least 50 feet away from busy roads and where no pesticides have been used. Roots will be easiest to harvest after a good rain or a few hours after the yard has been watered. If your neighbors don’t live on a busy street and don’t spray their lawns, ask permission to collect dandelions — then bring them some dandelion wine to show your gratitude.
Should you live where dandelions simply don’t grow, such as in a high-rise apartment building, check your local supermarket, farmers’ market, or health-food store. Nowadays many retail grocery stores carry dandelions in their produce departments.
Leaves. Dandelion leaves are best collected in the spring before the plants flower. People who claim to dislike the taste of the greens have very likely collected the leaves after a plant has flowered, when the greens have turned bitter. If you wash the leaves before drying, be sure to dry them well to discourage mold. Cut the leaves at their base with a knife or snap them off with your fingers. After the plant has seeded, there will be a new growth of leaves later in the summer and these also can be collected. Avoid leaves that are yellow and wilted.
About Rose Hips
In late fall, after the leaves have dropped, snip the partially dried orange-red rose hips from your rosebushes. Trim off and discard both ends; cut the remainder into thin slices. Dry the slices according to your favorite method.
Dehydrator: Spread slices thinly over trays and dry at 110°F (43°C), stirring occasionally. Dry for 12 to 18 hours, or until crisp and hard.
Outdoors: Spread slices over trays in a thin layer and allow to dry in a well-ventilated, shady area for two or three days, until crisp and hard. Take the trays inside at night.
Oven or homemade dryer: Spread slices thinly over trays. Dry at 110°F (43°C), stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 18 to 24 hours.
Rose hips are a good winter source of vitamin C. Rose hip tea benefits from the addition of other herbs, such as lemon balm and mint. To make rose hip tea, cover 1/3 cup dried rose hips with 1 quart cold water. Cover and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Strain liquid, mashing the hips with a fork to extract all the vitamin-rich juice. Drink hot or cold with a spoonful of lemon juice and honey or sugar.
Flowers. When collecting flowers, it is helpful to have small children with you — they’ll love to help. Spread the blossoms on a large cloth to allow some of the insects to crawl and fly away before you bring them inside. For appearance and efficacy, use the flowers the same day that they have been collected.
Roots. There is a wonderful tool called a dandelion digger (available at gardening supply shops) that you can use for digging the deep dandelion taproots. To obtain large roots, gather plants that are at least two years old. The best roots will be found in unmowed patches of land and in soil that is rich and loose. Here a root is likely to be single and juicy. (In poorer soil, the root tends to be forked and tough.) The plant is most effective in its fresh state. Roots from older plants will be leathery to eat but can still be used for medicine and in teas.
The ideal times to collect roots are in early spring before the plants flower and then again in fall after the first frost.
Spring-harvested roots are sweeter than those taken in the fall, as they are higher in fructose and less bitter and fibrous. But they must be collected before the flower buds are big, or all of their energy will go into producing the blossom, depleting the root. From September to February is also a good time to collect the roots, when the plants are highest in inulin, which imparts a sweet taste. Spring roots are higher in taraxacin, which stimulates bile production, and fructose, a simple sugar, than are fall roots.
A dandelion digger is good for digging out any plant with a deep taproot, not just the dandelion.
Fall-harvested roots are more bitter and richer in inulin, which makes them more of a therapeutic medicine. This combination is partly because during the growing season, the fructose (also known as levulose) in the roots converts to inulin. The winter freeze then breaks down the inulin back to fructose, which sweetens the spring roots.
One popular beverage is a dandelion “coffee” made from the dried and roasted roots. This drink tastes rich and earthy, similar to coffee but without the caffeine. It is nonaddictive and much kinder to the stomach. Dandelion roots tend to be more bitter in summer and fall and sweeter in spring.
• To prepare the roots: Dig the roots (20 should give you enough for a small supply) in the fall and wash well, using a vegetable brush to scrub them. Slice the roots lengthwise and allow them to dry in a warm place for two weeks.
• To roast the roots: When dry, roast them for 4 hours in an oven heated to 200°F (93°C). An alternative is to roast the dried, sliced roots in a cast-iron skillet, stirring constantly, until they are dark brown. Cool completely before storing in a glass jar. Roasting dandelion roots releases aromatic compounds and converts the starch inulin into fructose, sweetening their taste.
• To brew: Simmer 1 heaping teaspoon of the root in 1 cup of water, covered, for 10 minutes, then strain. The resulting dark, rich beverage will help you feel warmer. If you want, you can also use the roasted roots as a coffee substitute by percolating or using the drip method.
• To enjoy: You can drink this as you would coffee with cream and sugar or with honey and milk.
Dandelion wine, believed to be of Celtic origin, is regarded as one of the fine country wines of Europe. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was not proper for ladies to drink alcohol; however, dandelion flower wine was considered so therapeutic to the kidneys and digestive system that it was deemed medicinal even for the ladies.
3 quarts dandelion blossoms
1 gallon water
2 oranges, with peel
1 lemon, with peel
3 pounds sugar
1 ounce fresh yeast or
3 packets instant yeast
1 pound raisins
1. Collect the blossoms when they are fully open on a sunny day. Remove any green parts; they will impair the fermentation.
2. In a large pot, bring the water to a boil and pour it over the flowers. Cover and let steep for three days.
3. Peel and juice the oranges and the lemon, save the peels, and reserve the liquid.
4. Add the orange and lemon peel to the flower-water mixture and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, strain out the solids, then add the sugar, stirring until it is dissolved. Allow to cool.
5. Add the orange and lemon juice, yeast, and raisins to the liquid. Put everything into a crock with a loose lid (so gas can escape) to ferment.
6. When the mixture has stopped bubbling (two days to a week), fermentation is complete. Strain the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth and transfer to sterilized bottles. Slip a deflated balloon over the top of each bottle to monitor for further fermentation. When the balloon remains deflated for 24 hours, fermentation is complete. Cork the bottles and store in a cool, dark place for at least six months before drinking.
Although daylilies aren’t strictly wild plants, so many have escaped from gardens that they abound in fields and on roadsides, so they are fun to forage. Basil flower stalks, small clusters of sage leaves, and nasturtium blossoms may also be prepared this way.
2/3 cup flour
½ teaspoon salt (or more)
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
1 egg yolk
1/3–½ cup beer
Vegetable oil (for frying)
12 daylily flowers
1. Line a plate with several paper towels. In a small bowl, combine the flour, salt, garlic powder, black pepper, and cayenne. Add the egg yolk; mix until well blended.
2. Add beer, a little at a time, whisking constantly, until the mixture is the consistency of thick pancake batter.
3. Heat about 2 inches of oil in a deep skillet. Drop a little batter into the oil; when the batter starts to brown, reduce the heat to medium. Pick up a daylily by the stalk and swish it in the batter to coat the whole flower except the part you’re holding.
4. Place the batter-covered stalks in the hot oil, a few at a time. Fry until brown on both sides, turning once.
5. Transfer the fritters to the paper-towel-lined plate; serve immediately.
Yield: 12 fritters
If you know where to find them, fiddleheads are best picked fresh. Increasingly, though, they are available in specialty markets and at farm stands. Looking like fuzzy green spirals, they are the tightly furled fronds of the ostrich fern. They have a flavor reminiscent of asparagus.
Preparing fiddleheads takes a little care. Soak them in water for a few minutes, then ruffle the curled ferns with your fingers to release as much of the fuzzy brown coating as possible. It will come off in small particles and should be skimmed off the water and discarded. Blanch the cleaned fiddleheads for 2 minutes in boiling water; immediately refresh them under cool water, then drain thoroughly. Place the fiddleheads in a fresh pot of boiling water for 2 more minutes, then drain. Boiling the fiddleheads in two changes of water is thought to remove a certain heat-labile toxin that can make some people sick.
Blanched fiddleheads are delicious when sautéed with butter and garlic, cooked in an omelet, or added to pasta or soup. They may also be served with a light cream or cheese sauce.
The days are longer, but it still isn’t spring. After being cooped up by the woodstove all winter, it is delightful to rouse yourself and trundle off into the maple grove to set the taps for the first flow of sap.
Later, the smell of wood smoke mingled with that of the sweet boiling sap will fill you with the happy expectation of pouring your own dark golden syrup over fresh hotcakes or fritters.
After the last of the syrup is bottled, the maple grove will continue to give pleasure with leafy summer shade followed by a dazzle of orange foliage. Your homemade syrup will continue to bring the joy of natural sweetness to your table and those of your lucky friends.
The basic process of making maple syrup is extremely simple. All you do is boil maple sap down — way down. It takes about 9 gallons of sap to make 1 pint of syrup. If you intend to sell the syrup you make, there are some further steps, such as filtering it and grading it, but these are not necessary for making a delicious product for home consumption.
The equipment for making syrup can be as simple as two or three spouts, some large tin cans, and a kettle. Or it can be as complicated as a full-scale sugarhouse with evaporator, finishing rig, and holding tank. Here you’ll find the steps to make only a couple of quarts of syrup; for this, you’ll have to invest very little in equipment.
First of all, your part of the country has to have sunny days and freezing nights in early spring or your maples won’t yield any sap to mention. Where is the climate right? In virtually all of New England; in most of New York State; in western Pennsylvania; in a broad sweep of the Midwest, especially Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin; and in parts of Canada.
Next, you must be able to recognize a sugar maple. Most people who grew up in the city or suburbs cannot. (Maple syrup expert Noel Perrin admits that years ago, he paid a neighbor’s teenage son three dollars to walk through his newly bought woods with him, pointing out the sugar maples while he marked them with red paint.)
In winter and spring, however, it can sometimes be hard to tell, so if you’re going to tap maples in a woodlot, identify them the fall before you plan to start.
To help you identify sugar maples, you’ll need to recognize two other maples, so you know which trees not to tap.
The Norway maple is usually planted in yards as an ornamental tree. It has the same classic maple leaf as a sugar maple — the leaf that is on the Canadian flag. But the leaf of the Norway is about twice as wide as a sugar maple leaf and much larger altogether. The bark has a fine, diamond-shaped pattern that sugar maples lack.
The other common variety is the red maple, also called swamp maple. In the fall, it’s easy to tell one from a sugar maple: It is among the first of all trees to turn color, and it becomes bright scarlet. A sugar maple will turn pink to yellow to orange several weeks later. Also, red maples have small, saw-toothed leaves, while the edges of a sugar maple leaf are smoothly curved.
Step by Step
Tapping. The right day to start is a sunny one when the temperature is at least 40°F (4°C) after a freezing night. Depending on where you live, such days will begin to occur anywhere from late February to late March. If you tap too early, your spouts will dry up before the season is over. A tree usually closes off the flow of sap in four to six weeks. This becomes a problem if you tapped on a freak early warm day that is then followed by a couple of weeks of cold weather, during which no sap runs. On the other hand, if you tap too late, you miss the early runs. A good rule of thumb is to tap about one month before the last snow is usually gone. If the snow in your area is typically melted away by April 10, you should tap around March 10.
Maple Syrup Supplies
• Spouts. You’ll need one to five spouts, which are usually available in hardware stores in sugaring country. They come in four or five varieties; look for spouts that come with precast hooks, but any of the metal spouts on the market will work just fine.
• Drill. A hand drill with a 7/16-inch bit is best, though you could probably get away with a 3/8 or ½-inch bit.
• Containers. You’ll need several, including sap buckets; plastic gallon jugs, such as those that cider and milk come in; or even coffee cans, though you would have to empty them rather often. A large plastic pail for gathering the sap is also helpful.
• Heat. Boiling the sap down requires plenty of heat for a long period of time. The simplest way is to put it into an ordinary cooking pot on the kitchen stove or woodstove, but the sticky steam may be a problem in the house. Most people prefer to do their boiling in the yard on an outdoor fireplace.
Drilling holes for the taps
Collecting sap in a plastic jug
You’ll need one to five spouts, a drill, and a hammer. In each tree, drill a hole about 2½ inches deep and about 2 feet above the ground. Gently drive in the spout with the hammer — if it’s a hookless spout, remember to put on a hook, facing outward, before you do. Use several light strokes to tap in the spout. If you drive it in too hard, you will split the bark and a good deal of sap will leak out through the split and be lost. But if you drive it in too lightly, it may pull out under the weight of a full container.
If you’re using tin cans to collect the sap, make a hole near the rims and hang on the hooks. If you’re using gallon plastic jugs, hang them by a hole in the handle, because it is the strongest part of the jugs.
If you get the jugs up by 10 o’clock in the morning, they should be full by suppertime. In fact, if it is a really good day, you may have to empty them twice. About then you’ll wish you had a gathering pail — a cheap plastic bucket will work nicely.
Start boiling. As soon as you’ve gathered, you can start boiling. A pot that will hold at least 2 gallons is best. Just pour in the sap and leave it to simmer all night. At this stage, no special precautions are necessary.
In the morning, if you’re lucky, the volume will be down about half, and by afternoon it will be down to about a quarter. At this point, you will need to decide whether to keep adding fresh sap or to finish off each batch separately. Since 2 gallons of sap make less than 1 cup of maple syrup, it’s a good idea to add fresh sap to make at least 1 pint at a time.
Once the sap has boiled down to about one-tenth of its original volume, you should start watching it carefully. Skim off the thick white foam from the top and discard it. The syrup may boil up abruptly if the heat is too high. Adding a single drop of cream will send it right back down and enable you to keep it boiling.
If you have a candy thermometer, use it to test whether the syrup is done. It should read seven degrees above the boiling point of water — 219°F (104°C). Or dip an ordinary spatula into the boiling sap and hold it vertically over the pot. If the syrup is ready, a thin “apron” of maple will appear at the bottom of the spatula. If the sap is still too thin, it will simply drip back into the pot.
Filtering. All right, it aproned. You have syrup. Since this syrup is for home use, you can immediately store it in a clean glass jar with an airtight lid. The next day, however, there will be unattractive sediment at the bottom of the jar. The old-timers just poured off the clear syrup from above it, but you may prefer to filter it. Commercial sugarers use a special felted-wool filter, but you can simply pour it through a paper coffee filter, or even a funnel lined with paper toweling.
Repeat these steps until the season ends or you get tired, whichever comes first. Small-scale sugaring is so slow a process that people often do tire of it while the sap is still running. In that case, simply pull out the spouts and stop.
End of season. But suppose you don’t get tired. How will you know when to stop? Over several weeks, the cans or jugs fill more and more slowly. One afternoon, you’ll go out to gather and find that they contain either nothing or just a little bit of pale yellow, or maybe bright yellow, sap. The trees are now ready to bud, and the sap is worthless for making syrup. Throw it out and call the season over.
If you kept going all season, you should have about 1 quart of syrup per tap.
Maple syrup is graded by its color, which is an accurate indicator of its flavor. A commercial grading set, consisting of little bottles of colored syrup for matching, can be purchased if you want to test your own.
Fancy. Pale golden, delicately flavored
Grade A. Light amber, rich but mild in flavor
Grade B. Medium amber, robust flavor
Grade C. Dark amber, strong in flavor
It takes about 9 gallons of maple sap to make 1 pint of syrup.