Mysteries of Maple Sap



Most people know maple syrup comes from sugar maple trees, but did you know that forty gallons of maple sap is boiled down to make one gallon of syrup? This is the time of year (late February or March) when maple producers tap the trees and collect sap. Nowadays the process is pretty streamlined by running tubes from all the trees to central tanks. But, in the winter of 1977, when I spent six weeks on a dairy farm in southern Vermont, sap was still gathered in pails hanging from trees and manually carried to a tank on a sled.

Sap is only collected during the window of time before leafing out when the sap tastes sweet but is not tinged with chlorophyll. No sap flows in the dead of winter when the trees are dormant. Daily cycles of freezing and thawing stimulate a pumping action within the tree’s sapwood or vascular system. That winter on Clyde and Florence Twitchell’s dairy farm many days the temperature never rose above freezing, but when it did, I was filled with anticipation.

Each morning after milking, my boyfriend and I, along with the other young couple would wait for the farmer to declare if we’d work the sugarbush. Under the right ecological conditions sugar maple, Acer saccharum grows in dense stands. The deep shade of the forest canopy prevents all but shade-tolerant maple seedlings from getting established. If the weather were right and the sap flowing, we’d climb on to the 100-gallon sap-tank sled pulled by the bulldozer, and head out for the morning.

As the bulldozer slowly chugged down the slope to the sugarbush, I hung on and admired the handsome bare trees. The sturdy gray trunks were grooved with a distinctive bark. Then we would strap on Huron-style snowshoes and get to work. In the beginning of the season the farmer re-drilled holes and tapped in spouts. As part of the crew, I followed with metal pails and hung them from the spouts. Then someone would place a metal cover over each pail. Once the sap was flowing our routine involved visiting every tree, catching the sap that dripped out. As a farm hand, my job was carrying the pail containing the day’s harvest of sap to the awaiting tank, and then replacing the empty pail over the spout.

The snowshoes let me float over the soft snow, but I was clumsy and the long tails got in my way as I maneuvered around the trees. More than once I let the tails cross behind me. In trying to lift the lower snowshoe, I’d lose my balance and fall face forward into the deep snow, spilling the sap. It was cold wet work. When no one was looking I’d take a big gulp of sap from one of the buckets.

Most everyone knows the exquisite taste of real maple syrup, but the taste of sap, now that is something subtle. How can I describe the flavor that has lingered with me for almost 40 years? Cold and refreshing like a mountain stream, but with a mild sweetness that hinted of trees; it tasted like the promise of springtime. I remember wanting to bottle and drink the sap, never mind boil it! That is exactly what people in South Korea do. Maple sap is considered a spring elixir called Gorosoe “good for the bones”. There is even a legend about a 9th-century Buddhist monk who was restored by the sap. The nutrient-rich sap provides the tree with calcium, potassium, and other minerals for the coming season. The 2% sugar content of maple sap is the product of the previous summer’s photosynthesis. The maple converts the stored starch into sugar and it dissolves in the sap.

At the sugar shack, the primitive processing plant, the farmer’s wife would stoke the fire in the evaporator with dried slats of white pine from a local sawmill. As sap flowed through channels in the huge metal pan, steam filled the shack until the water content was cooked off. Maple syrup not only concentrates flavor, but also the sap’s minerals. This makes it one of the healthiest sweeteners available. We stopped collecting sap when the nights got above freezing and the trees no longer pumped the sap into the buckets. I’m glad I had the opportunity to work in a sugarbush and be part of the New England tradition.

(The photos came from Flicker’s Creative Commons. The top one from Keene Public Library, Keene New Hampshire,1975. The bottom from Lezumblaberenjena, in Montpellier, Quebec, Canada.)

Sugar bush

What Does Sustainable Seaweed Harvest Look Like?

Seaweed Harvest Mendocino Coast

My post on nori harvest two years ago was vague because I was hesitant to encourage more people to get out there and possibly damage the environment.

As individuals we have responsibilities not to over-harvest, but like many issues the large-scale commercial operations and loss of habitat are the real culprits. If that is the case, why should we care? I think we cultivate an attitude of respect that reverberates throughout our lives and to all we contact.

What can we do to both protect the marine ecosystems and provide nutritious edible seaweed for our families?

Listen to wildcrafters who are committed to ethical harvest standards:

  • How much to harvest in one area,
  • The importance of pollution-free waters because some seaweeds accumulate metals and become contaminated by sewage, agricultural, industrial, and  radioactive wastes.
  • Protect the plant’s viability by cutting rather than pulling or raking.
  • Cutting distance from the anchor point to allow for regeneration.

Respect the state and local regulations. In Washington state, for example:

  • a license is required,
  • 10 lbs wet-weight limit,
  • specifications for harvest techniques for kelp, bull kelp, and nori

Ryan Drum, a wildcrafter and biochemist from Waldron Island has a healthy perspective. Learn from a master herbalist On June 15th on Orcas Island.

Commercial Harvesting of Wild Seaweed

Sustainable seaweed harvest has been in the news a lot lately from Scientific American to the Huffington Post.

Industrial processing converts seaweed into the raw materials carrageen and alginate, basic components that act as gels and glue in everything from ice cream to paints and cosmetics. Global consumption is roughly 21 million metric tons a year.

More than 95 % of global seaweed production is from farmed operations. But before the last remaining wild stands are dragged and vacuumed, the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization recognized for eco-labeling will set standards by January 2015. Europe countries bordering the north Atlantic are also establishing their own criteria.

Upcoming brief blog posts will include more seaweed fun facts. Steven Foster, an herbalist concerned with ethical wildcrafting recently posted this: Fair-wild Standard

Seaweed Fun Facts: Nori (Porphyra)

Nori cell walls lack cellulose, but are protein-rich—humans are able to digest it, unlike most kelp.

This seaweed is only 1-cell thick! That’s why it is pliable and perfect for making sushi rolls. Gently tug on the raw plant.

Harvest at low tide in April and May. Always use scissors or sharp knife to harvest. Leave the holdfast so the nori will regrow and produce reproductive structures.

A great travel and backpack food because it is so nutrient-dense: high in protein, Vitamin A, B-6 and C, along with many minerals.

Japanese have been cultivating it for 300 years. Nori does not naturally dry into flat sheets! Traditional techniques are similar to paper-making.

Toasting nori makes it taste better and improves the texture: Hold store-bought sheets over a kitchen burner until edges start to curl and the sheet feels stiff.

Wildcrafted Nori: Harvest, dry, store until ready, then lightly toss with olive oil, place on sheet pan and bake for a few minutes until crisp and shiny.

Natural history: Technically a red algae, although the color varies widely.

Life Cycle: Porphyra undergoes 3 life forms to complete the reproductive cycle.

Intertidal Zone Habitat: Mid to high intertidal zone.Intertidal Zone2 Note the black band.

I forgot how much I love nettle tea!

Nettle HarvestGathering NettlesIt has a full-body flavor like black tea without the tannins. Iron-rich, nettle tea also makes a wonderful addition to any vegetarian soup stock.Why do nettles sting? The fragile, hollow hairs are filled with histamine and acetylcholine. Touch them and the contents spill out. Harvest them with gloves or even heavy plastic bags. In my younger days, I was so enthusiastic to pick this plant that a few times I did it with bare fingers! The tips of my thumb and forefinger remained numb for days. I have since learned if the urge to harvest is irresistible I can pinch the young plant below the soil surface to avoid getting stung.

Needle-like tiny hairs cover the stems and back of leaves.
Needle-like tiny hairs cover the stems and back of leaves.
Illustration from Biology of Plants, Peter Raven, Ray Evert and Helena Curtis, 1976.
Illustration from Biology of Plants, Peter Raven, Ray Evert and Helena Curtis, 1976.

Don’t pick nettles near agricultural fields grown with chemicals because the plants can accumulate the nitrates and heavy metals. The woods around Port Townsend are full of this wickedly wonderful plant.

  • Nettle helps alkalinize the blood, and is high in all kinds of minerals.
  • The most nutritious way to consume it is juiced. Try freezing the juice in ice cube trays and storing in bags.
  • Harvest leafy stems up until flowering in summer.
  • Drying Nettles: Remove the dried stems and store the leaves. While the leaves no longer sting, the rough hairs can still scratch.

Nori Harvesting Along the Mendocino Coast

Toasted nori is an incredibly delicious and nutritious snack. The secret starts with harvesting it in the clean Pacific waters off the Mendocino coast. Matthew Frey has been doing this for years and Tuesday I had a chance to go collecting with him.

Since the tide was a super- low one,  -1.7,  the first thing he wanted to do was dive for abalone with two fellows. He had promised to show them the place where the big abalone could be found. This is story is about nori and if we’re lucky, I’ll have time to weave the story of abalone hunting tomorrow.

North of Fort Bragg, Matthew stopped in one of the many coastal access trails along California’s Hwy 1. We scrambled down the coastal cliff carpeted in lush vegetation. He was down to the shore in no time, followed by his tiny companions, Cayo and Piqi. These little dogs go everywhere with him. Together, the three glided over rocks while I was still clutching at Coyote Bushes and easing down the cliff. When I caught up with them, Matthew pointed out the shiny dark olive-green seaweeds draped over a huge boulder.

My knowledge of the intertidal zone is limited to the relatively quiet waters of the Salish Sea, otherwise known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, far to the north. That water separates the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island. Up there, nori or Porphyra, grows slowly. When the tide is out, the seaweed that grows high up on the shore, looks shiny black and appears plastered on the rocks. I have never seen much of it, but here, along California’s coast, nori grows in thick patches, layer-upon-layer.  Matthew showed me how to tear off the seaweed without ripping the holdfast that anchors it to the rocks.

Allow me a brief digression here: I love seaweeds! I love the way they grow in a nutrient-rich broth that is the sea. Seaweeds don’t need roots! They drink minerals from the surface of their leaf-like blades. They don’t need to fight gravity the way terrestrial beings do; seaweeds float. The trade-off is that these marine plants need to be sturdy enough to withstand the pounding surf. Not only that, but they need to survive the desert conditions of low tide. Imagine three- to six- hour stretches of exposure to the rays of the sun, when the tide rolls away. These plants are highly adaptable! Well, since I did say a “brief digression”, I’ll get back to the story.

After filling our bags, we returned to the car and drove up the coast. A few miles farther we pulled over at another of his favorite spots. The trail wound through ceanothus and a field interspersed with Monterray pine and cypress. Along the edge of the cliff, Pacific Coast Iris were blooming in patches. I could see them close up as we descended the trail. We began gathering more nori.

Matthew showed me places where other harvesters had come before us. One patch was reduced to shreds. At a second location, the seaweed looked like young spring growth and we guessed that it had been cut and allowed to regrow. Sustainable wildcrafting, or gathering plants in the wild, requires sensitivity to the ecology and respect for limits. A Pomo tribal man showed Matthew how to harvest many years ago. See the next post for cleaning and drying the nori.