When Tapping, Don’t Disregard Red Maple

When Tapping, Don’t Disregard Red Maple Image

At a recent meeting of maple producers in New England, I asked the question, “How many people would never tap a red maple?” Half the audience raised their hands. There were a number of reasons given, including fear of low sugar content or bad-tasting syrup; it’s been theorized that since red maple buds swell earlier than sugar maple, the syrup might taste buddy. And yet, when I’ve talked to people who actually tap red maples, it seems that many of these fears are unfounded. Add to this the fact that the existing red maple resource in the Northeast is huge and expanding – Vermont has 40 million live red maples at least 10 inches in diameter; Maine, Pennsylvania, and New York have far greater numbers – and it seems that many sugarmakers would be wise to give red maple a second look.

There are several reasons why red maple is flourishing throughout the region. Red maple grows fast and will usually outstrip the growth of sugar maple and beech in abandoned farm fields. Human-caused events – the introduction of chestnut and elm blight, high grading, and fire suppression (fire is more damaging to red maple than most other hardwoods) – have all caused red maple to become more competitive in our forests. Red maple is more resistant to ozone and acid rain, and in some areas where air pollution contributes to mortality of mature sugar maple, the canopy is being replaced by red maple. Although red maple is susceptible to several unsightly leaf diseases, insect defoliation is usually less severe in red maple than in sugar maple. Forest tent caterpillars avoid it altogether. Keeping red maples in a sugarbush adds to its diversity, and a diverse sugarbush will experience less insect and disease damage than a stand of pure sugar maple.

Red maple and sugar maple differ in several other respects. Sugar maple is usually confined to moist but well-drained soils, while red maple will develop a root system suitable for almost any site – from dry ridges to swamps and bogs. Sugar maples may live to 300 years or more, while red maple rarely exceeds 150 years. Red maple flowers almost every year and the seeds fall in the late spring; sugar maple flowers less frequently, and the ripe seeds drop in the fall. Red maple stumps often sprout to yield a clump of poles from the same base; often these have defects and are not destined to become full-sized trees. Large wounds, as well as branch stubs, are more readily subject to decay in red maple than in sugar maple. Sugarmakers who tap red maple report that tap holes usually close rapidly, but spouts driven hard can cause a considerable split in the cambium above and below the hole. Red maple branches break more readily from wind and ice.

So what about red maple as a tree for sap collection? I spoke to several people whose sugarbushes consist of a large proportion of this species. Some described their syrup flavor as “more maple,” some as “more caramel;” all claimed that their customers were very happy with it. The differences in flavor seem to echo the vast differences also found among sugar maple syrups from different soils and regions. Haven King, who buys syrup from sugarmakers all over the Northeastern U.S. and Canada for Maple Grove Farms of Vermont, told me that some of the best-tasting syrup he buys comes from sugarbushes that are mostly red maple.

Sugarmakers had varying descriptions of the niter produced from boiling red maple sap, with the yearly range from white to black and from light to heavy – just as is typical with sugar maple. No one described problems with buddy sap; apparently most red maples shut down sap production as the buds begin to open, or the sap turns buddy at about the same time as that of sugar maple. Sugar content was typically lower, but only by a couple tenths of a degree brix. Some stands of red maple ran earlier than sugar maple stands, some did not. Syrup made from a predominance of red maple is often a bit darker than sugar maple syrup, but not dramatically so. Sugarmakers who collect with buckets describe some red maples with very shaggy bark as poor sap trees but said that other trees were often very high yielding. Trees growing in a swampy area often have large heartwood centers, necessitating shallow tapholes.

Many maple producers are poised to expand their operations. With the vast amount of untapped red maple in northeastern forests, it makes sense to take advantage of this species. While tapping a stand that is largely red maple may scare some people, there is no reason to avoid these trees when they are growing in your sugarbush.

Tim Wilmot is a University of Vermont extension maple specialist. A version of this column appeared in Farming, The Journal of Northeast Agriculture in April, 2009, and is used with permission.

 
Discussion
  1. jason → in PA
    Feb 15, 2012

    Going from this article, I decided to purchase sugar supplies and tap my read maples this year. The syrup made from these seems to be somewhat darker (article mentioned) but also the syrup has a nutty/vanilla flavor. I also noticed that I took it past the recommended sugar content by bringing it off at 32. I should have brought it off at 30 or just after.
    Is there more information on the taste of the final product, syrup made from a Red Maple? All my sap is from Red Maples. Perhaps, weird winter this year, I started to tap early. Is there any information on starch levels in the sap if tapped to early? Perhaps explain the slight off taste?
    With a temp of 20’s at night, days 40ish, and I gathered the sap on a two day drip, I cooked it down right away, I am sure there is no spoilage.. Can you explain “buddy”?

  2. dave → in corinth
    Feb 16, 2012

    Hi Jason,

    “Buddy” is an off-flavor that typically develops late in the season, when buds are swelling and the tree’s metabolism is changing. It might be associated with increased amounts of amino acids in sap. There’s another naturally occurring off-flavor called “Metabolism,” which is sort of like buddy but happens earlier in the season, usually during a warm spell. People have described buddy as tasting like chocolate or butterscotch; metabolism as tasting like popcorn or peanut butter. As you can imagine, it’s very hard to free associate like this and have it make sense to anyone but the taster. Some years there are reports of widespread metabolism, other years no reports at all. Because these are naturally occurring off flavors, there’s nothing a producer can do about them.

    As for the specific taste of red maple sap, it would seem, based on the size of the buds compared to hard maple buds that the syrup would go “buddy” quicker. We just started tapping red maples in our sugarbush in the past few years, and because all the sap gets blended with hard maple sap, i can’t say one way or the other if this is true. As you know, there are so many variables that effect syrup flavor, it’s really hard to isolate one variable and make a definitive declaration.

    Finally, on most years trees will get sweeter (then less sweet) as the season progresses. We usually start around 1.5% in our bush in February, peak at about 2.5% in mid-March, then fall back down to around 1% in mid-April. Early tapping reports in southern Vermont had sugar content around 1% in late January. This sap will almost certainly get sweeter as the trees wake up and shrug off winter dormancy.

    Proctor Maple Research Center http://www.uvm.edu/~pmrc/ and the Cornell Research and Extension program http://maple.dnr.cornell.edu/ are both good sources of maple info where you can learn more. Let us know how you make out this year, and whether this year’s syrup has that same nutty/vanilla flavor.

  3. Ml → in Minnesota
    Mar 03, 2014

    Great article. I have tapped both silver maple and box elder for years. The syrup is a divine vanilla cream, very light colored and sweet.
    Never a problem.
    This year, it will be red maples since I moved.
    Be well.

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