We wait all year to tap into those magical trees to enjoy the sweet elixir that is maple syrup.
And this is the perfect time of year to do it. The days are getting longer, Grandfather Sun is waking up from a peaceful slumber, and maple sugar is flowing like sweet water.
It’s the time of year that reminds us life always comes back full circle. Everything re-awakens and rejuvenates. Every winter turns to spring, every storm ends, every night turns to day and every living thing on earth has a purpose.
For maple trees, that purpose is providing medicine: that sweet, sweet medicine we’ve all come to know and love as maple syrup. The life and sustenance it gives to humans and the earth is one of the most glorious parts of the coming spring every year.
This year, with the Covid pandemic still kind of keeping people separated, community members learned about tapping and producing maple syrup through a Zoom session as part of the ongoing community wellness series provided by Six Nations Health Services.
So how did humans discover maple sugar?
Traditional knowledge keeper Cleve Thomas explained that in traditional Haudenosaunee lore, the people were starving after a long winter when one man went off and observed a squirrel and saw that it had broken a branch off a sugar maple tree. He observed the squirrel eating sap from the stick, and that’s where humans got the idea to tap into the tree and try the sap for themselves.
Thus, maple syrup was born.
Community members were welcomed to the property of Dave Sowden and Michelle Bomberry to watch as he tapped a maple tree, explaining the process of finding a tree, how to tap it and how to monitor the collection of the sap.
On a cheery and sunny winter afternoon, surrounded by trees, Sowden explained it is difficult to distinguish a sugar maple tree from a red maple tree in the winter, so it’s best to find the tree you want to tap in the summer, when the leaves are in bloom. A sugar maple tree has leaves with five points, while a red maple tree has leaves with three points.
The sugar maple has the highest concentration of sap in it.
For the keen eye, some can distinguish the tree in the winter by the way the bark on the tree curls out.
He recommends tapping a tree with a trunk circumference about the size of a dinner plate, or about nine inches.
“When you think of the process from beginning to end, it’s magical, really,” he said as he prepared to drill a hole into the bark.
He demonstrated how to tap a tree with a spile and corking it into the tree after drilling the hole, recommending a half inch drill bit. Sowden says you can use a power drill, too, if you don’t want to use a hand drill.
Most people use metal spiles. After inserting the spile, attach the bucket underneath to collect the sap, and put a lid on it so no debris falls inside your sweet treasure.
“To get a decent amount of sap, you would hope for sub zero temperatures at night and plus temperatures during the daytime,” said Sowden.
He recommends tapping the side of the tree that gets the most sun in the morning.
He puts tobacco down before starting and thanking the Creator for the gift of sap.
“We are thankful because we don’t even know if the sap will run,” said his spouse Michelle Bomberry.
During filming, the sap was running well, which the two plan to share with community members.
They invited their friends Mandy and Stan Wesley (Mandy was the former Senior Administrative Officer at the Six Nations of the Grand River band office) and their kids over for the tapping, and the togetherness, combined with the sunshine and being surrounded by trees, made for a serene afternoon in nature.
“It’s so beautiful land peaceful out there,” Mandy said.
There was a tranquility and peace to spending time in nature with friends and family in nature, she said.
“There’s definitely a peace that you find here.”
The psychological benefits of tree tapping were evident, proving that sweet water and the process in collecting it is not only medicine for your body but your mind, as well.
Maple syrup is also known for its many health benefits, vitamin and mineral content, and energy provision. It has a lower glycemic index than table sugar and the energy benefits from the carbohydrates in maple syrup last longer than refined white sugar, making it a great healthy fuel for endurance sports.
It also contains electrolytes like sodium and potassium, making it a great addition to your hydration regimen when working up a sweat during intense exercise, so pack some maple syrup and take a shot during a break in your next lax game or hockey game!
Happy maple syrup harvest time, Six Nations!