When Tapping, Don’t Disregard Red Maple

When Tapping, Don’t Disregard Red Maple

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.

  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.

  4. Amy → in Grandville, MI
    Mar 11, 2015

    We tapped a maple in our backyard this past Sunday March 8, 2015 for the first time. The sap is freely flowing and we got almost 3 gallons within 24 hrs. Its a huge tree so we put in 3 taps. I cooked it down yesterday and it definitely has the metabolism off taste of popcorn. I was just wondering if that problem gets better as the season goes on or if this tree will continue to give that off flavor all season? Is there any reason I shouldn’t use it in recipes? Thanks so much for any advice. I can’t seem to find much info online about it.

  5. Melisa Kennedy → in United States
    Jun 14, 2015

    I am scouting my trees now just moved on 30 wooded acres…city girl going country….I have so many different maples. Can I just tap random maples, mix all the sap together and boil down? Some maples are also in swamp area, are those ok to tap as well?

  6. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Jun 15, 2015

    Hi Melisa,

    Yes, and yes.

  7. Seth → in Grand Rapids, MI
    Nov 23, 2015

    I have a bunch of Norway maples in my yard…not so many Sugar or Red’s about my area…can I still tap the Norways?  I have been getting a wide variety of mixed responses to this question from the all-knowing google.

    The Norways that I have are very large, so could I triple tap them in order to get the amount of raw sap i would need to make up the difference to sugar maples?  Also, I have read that the sugar content is lower (depending on the source) but if I tap a Norway, is there a different or special technique to boil it down? 

    I would love to tap my own trees for a fun family hobby, but also don’t really feel like wasting my time with A LOT of work if the end result will be less than worth the effort! 

    Any insights would be appreciated!



  8. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Nov 24, 2015

    Yes you can tap them. There’s no difference in boiling technique. I’d recommend two taps maximum for tree health. The amount of sap you’d get out of an extra tap hole is not generally worth the stress on the tree.

  9. Kathy → in Madison,OH
    Mar 03, 2016

    Hi, this is our first time tapping , we couldn’t tell if a couple of the trees we tapped were sugar or what, but the raw sap from a couple trees have a barky taste while the rest have really no taste. Did we drill the tap holes too deep or do different tree sap taste different? I hope I’m making sense.

  10. dave → in corinth
    Mar 07, 2016

    The sap should all taste watery and nearly flavorless. Maple sap tends to average around 2 percent sugar, so it’s 98 percent water. The depth of the hole should not affect flavor.

  11. Jeanette → in St. Croix Falls, WI
    Mar 08, 2016

    Do all Red Maples produce sap at the same time?  We have some producing sap and others are not.  Should we pull the taps from the ones that are not producing or do we give them more time?

  12. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Mar 10, 2016

    The short answer to your questions is yes they all run at (roughly) the same time, and no, don’t pull them yet. There’s no harm in leaving them tapped and you might get lucky and have another run when the weather cooperates.

  13. Donna → in Moncton,NB
    Apr 02, 2016

    We have tapped our red maples for the past two years and are really enjoying the hobby. I am wondering about the sap-syrup ratios…is it 40-1 for red maple or is that just for the sugar maple? Our yield seems very low in comparison to the sap.

    Thank you!

  14. dave → in corinth
    Apr 04, 2016

    Hi Donna. Red maples do seem to be, on average, less sweet than sugar maples by a few tenths of a degree brix. Of course sugar content varies from tree to tree, and throughout the season, so it’s hard to pin down anything more exact than that. They also break bud before sugar maples, so on most years you’ll get a shorter season if you tap only red maples.

  15. Jake Martin → in Eastover, NC
    Apr 16, 2016

    I have several large red maples on my property and thought about trying to do syrup next year.  I am in North Carolina, is it possible to tap this far south?  I’m sure that the season is earlier than up north, how do you know when to tap?

  16. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Apr 18, 2016


    The sap run is predicated on a freeze/thaw cycle. So, it needs to freeze at night and then get warm during the day. You’ll get maybe four weeks out of your tapholes if you’re lucky—after that the tree will stop running. So look for a window in early spring where you’ll have a block of that weather. When you see the weather forecast saying a week of highs in the 40s or 50s and lows in the 20s, tap then.

  17. Troy → in Alfred, Maine
    Jan 16, 2017

    I have red maples in both wet areas of my property and in dry. Will I get more sap from the wet area maples because of the excess moisture?

  18. Dave → in Corinth
    Jan 18, 2017

    I don’t know, Troy, because “wet” and “dry” are both such subjective terms. It’s probably a safe bet that the more vigorous looking tree or trees will produce the most sap. Look especially at the quality of the tree’s crown—the more expansive the better. Of course the only way to be sure is to tap both sites and compare. Let us know what you find.

  19. Kar → in Wauconda IL
    Feb 23, 2017

    Enjoyed a great tapping week in early Feb. 2017.
    Then temps hit 50!s/60’s, including warm nights.
    Tap holes appear dry.
    Predictions now are for good hi/low temps for at least a week.
    Can I use same holes?
    Or should I make new tap holes?

  20. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Feb 24, 2017

    Anytime it gets above 50 the microbial loads in your tapholes and lines multiply, which will eventually cause your taphole to slime over and stop running. This doesn’t happen right away, though. My advice would be to wait and see what happens. It’s early enough that if you get good sap weather again (ie freezing temps at night), the holes will likely start running again. Generally speaking, it’s not good practice to redrill your holes. Not only does it stress the tree, but once the weather has been sufficiently warm to slime up a taphole, the tree’s metabolism will have changed in a way that’s not conducive to making good syrup. You might get another run or two out of the new hole, but the syrup you make will likely be off-flavored and not worth your time or the added tree stress.

  21. Kelly → in Cedar Rapids, IA
    Mar 10, 2017

    I’ve never tapped any trees before, but thought I’d try it with my 9th graders. We knew from the fall colors that there were maples on the property and we looked for alternating branches and found 9 big trees. We put two taps in each, and two days later, we had about 12 gallons of sap. I later found out through some knowledgeable people and a little more research, that all our trees were red maple. We finished our first batch on Tuesday and had it on some ice cream with the class yesterday. It is so yummy, not too sweet, but has a really nice caramel/butterscotch flavor. Perfect for ice cream.

  22. Rob Hutchins → in Hartland, VT
    Jul 08, 2017

    Dave in Corinth, Are you a Porter?

  23. Dave → in Corinth, VT
    Jul 12, 2017

    Nope. A Mance from southwestern Vermont. The magazine office is in Corinth, so I work up here regularly.

  24. Amy Peberdy
    Feb 08, 2019

    (Posted for Joe:)

    I just tapped red and sugar maple trees at the same time using the same type of tap kit.  They are at different locations.  The sugar maples have produced a few gallons of sap in less than a week yet the red maples have produced nothing.  This is with a few days of early sugaring.  The red maples have less sunlight than the sugar maples and are smaller.  The red maples are big enough to tap.  Why haven’t they produced sap?

  25. Dave Mance → in Shaftsbury, VT
    Feb 12, 2019

    It’s hard to say without seeing them, Joe. If the reds are north exposure and the sugars are south exposure, it could be as simple as microclimate. Double check your holes on the reds and be sure you didn’t drill into dead wood. When you say they’re smaller than the sugar maples but big enough to tap, what do you mean exactly? What’s the diameter of the respective species?

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