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.