Walnuts and Birches: An Untapped Resource

The title of this short expose is borrowed from chapter four of Michael Farrell’s 2013 book The Sugarmaker’s Companion, and what I would like to do here is both introduce readers to Farrell’s work in general, as well as draw attention to what I feel to be the key take-away from his book on making syrup from tree sap: sugar maples are not the only species of trees that sugarmakers can tap!

By Wes Eaton

By Wes Eaton

Farrell was a student of forestry in general before he tasted his first “maple” (insider’s jargon for maple syrup). As is often the case with the uninitiated, the first taste of true maple syrup often comes as a surprise. The flavor, like the syrup, is dense, concentrated, but at the same time altogether balanced. There are multiple flavor profiles possible for maple syrup, so this is a broad generalization. Nonetheless, a taste of true maple would be described as “authentic” – even by those who were raised on Aunt Jemima’s. Farrell detected this at once and applied for an academic position at Cornell, as head of the Sugar Maple Research & Extension Field Station in Lake Placid, N.Y.

I had no idea such a position existed, but this makes sense, considering the history and growing market for maple in the “new world.” Sugarmaker’s Companion is not an academic publication – although it does present some fascinating research from his dissertation where he analyzed U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data and identified the potential for the future growth of sugarmaking across the country. Michigan, incidentally, in comparison with all other more northern states where sugar maples grow, is amongst the top three states with the highest number of untapped trees. Moreover, further analysis revealed that Michigan’s forests contain the highest percentage of tap-able maples occurring in stands dense enough for a viable sugaring operation. This is especially so in the Upper Peninsula, where the largest number of pure sugar maple stands live. I am planning my summer travels accordingly.

The book, however, largely focuses on introducing folks to the essentials of sugarmaking, his goal being to encourage a new generation of syrup producers. Like other Extension service outputs, the book comes off a little like an outline for a business plan, but that’s okay for me as this is exactly what I have been looking for. The key that Farrell emphasizes and that I want to share here, however, is that sugar maples are not the only tap-able tree for sweet sap. He begins by emphasizing the potential of other varieties of maples, such as silvers, reds, blacks, and even Norways. While his FIA data analyzed U.S. forestlands, it did not take into account urban forests. Along my street, for instance, and in the park at the end of the road, are numerous maples, including sugars, silvers, reds and Norways. Each could be tapped. Although sap from the sugar maple contains the highest ratio of sugar to water, sap from these other subspecies is close, containing perhaps only a half a percent less sugar on average. In other words, Farrell tells us tapping sugar maples is key for big producers, whose margins are tight, but this is less important for us small producers.

Beyond maples, however, Farrell reports on two other tree species that also produce a sweet sap that can be evaporated down into very desirable syrup. This, folks, is what gets me most excited. Black walnut trees, while perhaps a bit messy, already provide a prized edible food, something that the folks at the food justice group Our Kitchen Table here in Grand Rapids often point out. Farrell argues, however, that the sap from these trees, which can be tapped at the same time and in the same ways as maples, can also be cooked down into a surprisingly delicious syrup, which is similar to that made from maples, if perhaps a bit more fruity or nutty. Farrell reports on research where a blind taste tests revealed nearly equal preference for both maple and walnut amongst the panel of tasters. Moreover, syrup producers can blend both the finished syrup as well as the saps of these trees into a maple-nut flavored syrup, which is already a popular taste. I have several walnuts in mind for tapping next season.

Furthermore, beyond maples and walnuts, one can tap birches. These are what I am most excited about for two reasons. First, birch syrup is supposedly more like a molasses than the sweet honey-like experience of maple and walnut tree sap. This would imply usage as an ingredient in cooking – which, incidentally, in what many suggest for black walnut nuts. Second, unlike maple and walnut sap, the flow of which is driven by variations in temperature between freezing and thaw, and which also happens to be the messiest time of the year to try to get into the woods, birch sap only begins to flow (in an amount that is worth collecting) once maples and walnuts have budded out, and their flow has diminished. In other words, once maple season is over, one can immediately begin again on a different variety of tree!

While March 2015 is still a fair distance off, I thought it would be good to report on all of this now, to peak your interests, and share the excitement of new potential varieties of trees to tap, and syrup to make, blend, cook with, and share, if for nothing less than to get you through the doldrums of warm summer months. While this winter was rather long, I always knew that the days would soon rise above forty, but then dip back down below twenty at night, prompting the sap to flow and collect in our syrup camp’s buckets. Next year there will be a few more buckets to the north of the cabin where several dozen mature white birches march along the edge of the maple and beech forest. But when the “peepers” begin at night in the swamps and lowlands, and the maples begin to bud out, rather than pack up camp, we’ll begin a new adventure.

Comments are closed.