Atoutumn is coming. And for us Vermonters, that means that the trees have gone from just-past-vibrant green to showing a little color. Especially in the hills.
If you are a beginner maple sugar maker, like me, this is the absolute best time to get into the woods and find your best maple trees for sugaring: your sugars and your reds. Leaf color can help with identification, and once the leaves fall, forget it. Time to get moving!
There are about a zillion resources for tree identification, especially online. There’s probably “an app for that,” too. But I'm partial to books. So, this weekend, somewhere in between pulling out the bolted lettuces, putting up beans and corn, and planting that plum tree we’ve been meaning to get into the ground, I grabbed a volume and took a little walk.
We sugar mostly with red maples. The sugar content of the sap is lower, so it takes a bit more work, but the syrup tastes just the same. And reds are what we have. So we use them.
Red maples are also called “swamp maples.” They live in swamps, bottomlands and uplands in moist soils. They are hearty trees, grow to 50-70 feet tall, and presumably get their name either from the scarlet color they turn in the fall, the color of the winged seeds they produce in the springtime, or both.
Red maples will tolerate a wider range of conditions than the sugar maple, including variations in the climate, so even for us amateur makers, it’s worth knowing your reds, even if you have plenty of sugars. Science suggests they will fare well despite our warming climate. So, as it happens, there’s a little good news to take with the bad.
The leaves of a red maple are from 2 to 6 inches wide. They look to me like they are 3 lobed rather than 5 lobed (lobes are the sections of the leaf), although technical definitions seem to allow for both. And they have a saw-toothed jagged edge to them with not a smooth curve anywhere. For me, that's the key.
Our sugarbush is very dense, so most of the leaves are far enough up in the air that I have to squint a bit to see them. But, because of the time of the year, I was able to find a few leaves around the base of my reds as proof that I had squinted effectively. And, as you can see, some were well on their way to scarlet.
And then there are the sugars. Sugar maples, so named because of the high concentration of sugar in their sap, grow even bigger than red maples, 60-80 feet, and naturally occur in rich, moist soils in uplands and valleys. In addition, however, sugar maples have been planted along roadways and at the edges of pasture lands for hundreds of years, and can still be found thus anywhere that farming is or ever was.
The leaf of a sugar maple is 3-5 inches wide and has 5 lobes, with a smooth, curved edge where the leaf of the red maple is jagged. This time of the year, sugar maples are likely to look multicolored, showing green as well as hints of yellow, orange and/or red as their chlorophyll recedes.
The few sugar maples we have are out in the open, and so have developed a crown that extends far enough toward the ground so that I don’t have to squint or forage for ground-leaves to make my identification. The sugar maple is so iconic. It's as easy as that.
So if you’re thinking about sugaring next spring, don’t underestimate the value of taking a short stroll through your woods to map out your sugar stand, now. Much like the beans and corn, this task just won't wait.
157 Pioneer Ctr., Ste. 1; Montpelier, VT
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