Please scroll down for Maple Syrup, Nettles, and Riparian Restoration.
A talk I gave on maple syrup (making it, and biology of it) In the winter of 2016-17 we ran about 10 taps on bigleaf maple trees. This was our first venture. We ended up with a couple of pints of syrup, although we had a lot of mishaps. Hint: if you burn the syrup while boiling it down, use it as a flavoring to make ice cream! Here’s an article about us and our maple-tapping: Maple Syrup.
The hardware you put in the tree is called the spile (although I met an old-timer who called it a “spoil” and I’ve seen it referred to in the literature as a spoil, too. We ordered metal ones from a supplier in the East (there are many), but this summer, after seeing an article on elderberry spiles, we made some from branches of blue elderberries. The commercial ones are L shaped, so the tubing goes downward, but the ones we made from elderberries are linear. I would think you could use PVC or lots of materials. Elderberries have huge pith (the material that feels like styrofoam) in the center of the stem. We chose 2-year old stems that had outer diameter similar to the spiles we bought, trimmed them to 2-4″ long, and then reamed the pith out of them with a stiff wire (with a rusty pinflag, to be more exact). After that we let them air-dry. But…they got soggy, some cracked when we put the hoses on them, they leaked if they didn’t seat quite right in the tap-holes. The commercial ones were a lot easier to deal with.
In 2017-18, we were a little more experienced, and we ended up with somewhere between 1 and 2 gallons of syrup. And we learned a lot. Some trees give so much sap (well, perhaps 3 gallons in 3 or 4 days) that it isn’t worth using the ones that give a cup or two in that same period. We still don’t know if those low producers will suddenly start giving sap though. We think the opposite happened a few times–good producers stopped, even when we re-drilled. We’re still mystified about why some trees are produce more than others; they can be adjacent, or at least on the same slope. We will keep working on that mystery.
I also decided I want to buy a lot of the same jug for collecting and transporting. The first two years we have used a motley collection of old jugs–from fruit juice, water; and carboys and other sorts of recipients. Most of them don’t have interchangeable lids. I will buy a lot of jugs, and twice as many lids, and then drill holes in only half of the lids, so I can pull a jug off a tube, put a lid on it, and carry it away, and replace it with a clean jug. Clean–operative word here: we had more spoiled sap this year than last. We got all sorts of smells and small biological items, in spite of what we thought was good hygiene. So changing out the jugs and tubing more often will be a new goal.
We hosted an Oregon State University Extension event in November, with 15 or 20 participants. I explained the mechanism of sap exudation as best I understood it. I have continued to read about the physiology, and to interrogate my work colleagues from around the world. I think the current model (which I will eventually blog on) explains much, but it leaves out a lot, too.
In 2018-19 season, we got about the same amount of sap as in 2017-18. We tapped 10-12 trees at a time, still getting most of the sap from two or three trees. We bought two dozen 2.5-gallon jugs and a lot of lids, which helped keep the operation clean–I’d just exchange the jugs each time I collected sap, and rinsed the used ones in tap water..
In 2018-19, we noticed that the trees with sapsucker damage are the ones that tend to get white materials growing in the sap if we don’t harvest fast enough–and in some cases, no matter what we do, it grows in a slick down the tubes. So I wondered if I was drilling too deep. If I drill into the heartwood (which is hydraulically distinct from the sapwood), then any rot from the heartwood could get into our system.
Well, now it’s 2019-20. We aren’t getting much sap. I tallied it on 2/2, and found we’d had only 1/5 the amount we had in either of the previous two years. I think the cause is mostly the warmer winter–we’re also getting flowering a lot earlier in a lot of native and non-native species. But we are also still plagued with that white material. Not only is it there from some of our trees, regardless of how deep the drill hole is, I think it also decreases the sugar content in the sap. Here’s the reasoning: if there’s an organism growing in there, it is using the sugars to sustain life. Here’s the evidence: the last batch I cooked down should have given us about 5 cups of syrup, but we only got a little over 3 cups–and it tasted strong. That means that by boiling it down to 66% sugar content, I boiled the sap that had a lot more extractives (the extractives we’d normally get in 5 cups, into 3 cups.)
Another innovation of 2019-20 was to buy an inexpensive propane “turkey roaster,” which is a study frame with one very powerful burner in it. I think it was $40 at BiMart. I set my phone for 30 minutes, put a large saucepan on the burner–outside–and let it boil. I still do the final boiling inside. But this way the steam and mess is outside a lot longer.
Facebook group: “Bigleaf Maple Tapping in the Pacific Northwest”
An OSU Extension Circular, Oregon State University Nontimber Forest Products for Small Woodland Owners: “Bigleaf Maple Syrup”
A book I recommend: Bigleaf Sugaring: Tapping the western maple. By Gary and Katherine Backlund. 2012. Published by Backwoods Forest Management, Ladysmith, BC. (Was $15 + shipping) Helpful book. In 96 pages, tells about equipment to get started, choosing trees, drilling, sap collection and handling, and making syrup.
An informative MS thesis, called “Production and quality of sap from the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum Marsh) on Vancouver Island, British Columbia,” by Deirdre Bruce, 2003 (Maple Syrup Thesis, MS University of Victoria)
In late July and early August 2017, we harvested about six bundles of thirty-six nettle stems for fiber. We then harvested more. We retted them several different ways–in the creek (submerged), on the grass in the dew for various periods), skutched them, carded them, wished we’d retted them more (although we were getting black splotches as it was), wished we’d skutched them more carefully (because a lot of wood was still there) … and I spun them with a drop spindle, then started to weave on a hand loom. My goal is to make a small cloth.
However, I quickly re-discovered some flax in the basement that I had never spun, but had carted around with me since high school. I decided, given how long the nettles took to prepare, to use some of the perfectly-clean, ordered flax, as well. It spun so easily compared to the nettles! The project awaits another round on it. The early story about our nettle adventures is in my first blog post ever, here. I will post a photo once the project is done.
We designed a riparian restoration project with several other landowners with the goal of improving habitat for chinook salmon and other species. In summer 2017 people submitted grant proposals, which were approved. People worked doggedly to get permits, and then began the restoration in summer 2018. The salmon are especially threatened by not having enough good gravelly creek-bottoms and cool water or the juveniles to grow up old enough to go to the ocean and then come back to complete their life cycles.
The main goals of the projects is to get better stream-bottoms and cooler summer temperatures for the salmon. Secondary goals, that are especially important to me, are to curtail the invasive plant species that are proliferating everywhere. With work toward these goals, we hope to end up with a “healthier ecosystem” (I don’t like that terminology, but I mean conditions more similar to the ones species have evolved with), which should be helpful for a lot of the native organisms out there other than coho salmon–including chinook, Pacific lamprey and brook lamprey, the native crawdad and freshwater mussels, the mammals–beavers, otters, bobcats, cougars, elk, foxes, coyotes, deer, and others, and the plants. If native plants blanket the ground, there’s no room for anything else.
In the summer of 2018, impressive crews put piles of logs (carefully placed, of course) into the creek. These log placements have a few goals. One is to slow the flow, which will make some of the suspended sediments drop down, and so make shallower parts of the creek–and in other places, make water speed up, making pools just beyond the structures. Those two habitats, along with the shade the log structures provide, give more habitat diversity. Additionally, though, they will over time raise the location of the bottom of the stream bed and slow the water. Those two factors will help some of the winter rains stay soaked into the soils nearby, so that over the summer, there will be more water–and it will be cooler, too–that will drip back into the creek.
Also in the summer of 2018, people came in with tractors that scraped up some of the weeds, roots and all, and pilled them aside along the hills. This was to make planting sides where plantings would have a headstart on the invasive berries and the reed canary grass. In a few places, the scraping (which they called blading) also deepened some old channels, which make is so water can stand there for longer in the spring and winter as “vernal pools.” These vernal pools are rich habitat for a bunch of plants that aren’t found elsewhere. They used to be common in our area. The vernal pools also contribute to the water storage in the meadow soils and the eventual cool water discharge that is important to the juvenile fish.
Also in summer and then fall of 2018, people planted many woody plants (western redcedars, Sitka spruce, a native honeysuckle shrub, spirea, willows, and redstem dogwood, cottonwood) into areas within about 75′ of the creek. They will provide shade to the creek, and also make a boundary layer that will help keep extreme temperatures from reaching the creek. And when the softwoods die, they will fall into the creek, making more log structures. So will the hardwoods, but they decompose so quickly, they don’t help with the creek issues much. People also sowed seeds and put in a few smaller forbs (a native sedge, a native lupine, Oregon sunshine, and some other native seed mixes). Then they put some impressive fencing around some of the tree plantings to keep some of the trees away from elk- or deer-harm.
Over the summer and fall of 2019 and now into the spring of 2020, people have been maintaining those fenced areas (“exclosures”) and some of the non-fenced areas by weed-whacking them, trying to get the competing vegetation down while leaving the planted plants. They have also put in more trees, cuttings, and plugs on our property and on some adjacent BLM lands.
Through all this, we have been doing a lot of maintenance as well–re-staking hundreds of trees that fell when snow came right after they were planted, weed-whacking and mowing with our tractor, doing some fence maintenance. We have also bought and planted a number of native species ourselves, and have done a lot of work with hoes and shovels to channel the upland water to where it will be helpful and not harmful as the plants become established.
We are continuing our personal assaults on the weeds with various means that include judicious (not-so-much) use of herbicides, a lot of mowing before the weeds go to seed, hand-pulling (every tansy ragwort, herb robert, and St. Johnswort we see on weekly campaigns), and hand-pulling or jabbing at with a hoe a lot of other invasive plants.
We have placed temperature sensors in each of eight locations in the creek, and have data now for two years before the project began and the one year afterward. We’ll continue that. We do see a pattern: initially, the waters came onto the formerly-homestead properties rather cool. It heated up over the next half-mile, where there were few logs in the water and little shade over large parts of the creek. It heated to a lesser degree where it was under shade. An important cold-water tributary lowered the temperature below that, but then the temperatures increased gradually again below that area. It appears that the restoration work is having a positive impact on stream temperatures (by decreasing them), but because every year’s weather is different, we’ll need more years to know this for sure.
And we’re censusing all the flowering plants on the property still. This way, we’ve seen some weeds come in with all the activity–and have been hand-pulling them before they get too established (notably, Sisymbrium, a Brassicaceae that makes a big tumbleweed). We’ve also seen some natives come back–or at least become apparent, that weren’t in the seed mixes.