All maple trees can be tapped for syrup. Yes all – that includes big leaf maples and box elders. The ratio of sugar concentration changes depending on the tree (sugar maples have the highest), still all maple trees will produce a sap that can then be boiled down into maple syrup. I personally have and tap silver maples with great success. Tap trees that are least 10″ in circumference to protect the health of the tree.
Other trees that can be tapped for syrup include:
At a minimum you need something with which to tap the trees. Traditionally spiles are used. I've used both the traditional metal ones and the newer plastic ones. Both work, we've experimented over the years. The metal ones can bend, the plastic ones can break. Either way be careful.
Many companies and backyard tappers use tubes, I tried those too and while they work just fine, I personally preferred the taps from which buckets could hang – I just didn't like leaving the collection containers sitting on the ground. Personal preference there nothing more. Choose what works best for your home.
Collection containers are also a must. Buckets work well and special maple tapping buckets can be purchased, however; any bucket that will hang from the spile works just fine. Empty and cleaned vinegar or milk jugs work well, too – simply punch a hole in the handle and hang it from the tap. If using the tubes, there are special collection bags but again, re-purposed plastic containers work just fine.
A hole needs to be drilled into the tree. The size of the drill bit depends on the size of the spile or tube used, most of the time it's in the 3/8″ range. Both a hand drill or a power drill will work.
When & How to Tap
Most trees are tapped when the daytime temperatures reach the 40 degree range but still drop below freezing at night. The sap certainly flows best at these temperatures in my experience and begins to slow down as the nights warm up.
To tap a tree, simply drill a hole at an upward angle to a depth of about 2 inches. Tap in the spile with a rubber mallet or small lightweight hammer and hang the collection container. Mother Nature does the rest of the work here, dripping the sap into the containers. Once day, collect the sap for syrup making.
The sap will stop following eventually on it's own. I usually pull the taps once it slows down according to the temperatures and certainly as soon as the trees start to bud. There's no reason to plug the tap hole. It will scar over on it's own and very quickly too. (The photo below was taken in July, taps were removed in March by October it would be completely closed.)
This is the most hands-on part of syrup making but even this happens quite easily without too much attention until the very end. All that sap needs to be boiled to a temperature that is 7 degrees above the boiling point (this varies based on elevation – so be sure to know what it is at your house). It is when it reaches this temperature that it becomes syrup. In my experience it tends to get hot very quickly towards the end as the water is close to evaporated so watch closely less it burns (I also know that from experience).
Boil it down on the stove but under a powerful hood as it gets very humid or do it outside. Once it's been boiled down, it can be sealed by canning or simply kept in the refrigerator.
The Sap to Syrup Ratio
After I did my first boil down of sap into syrup, I quickly realized why it was expensive to buy real maple syrup. There is a lot evaporation. The ratio of sap to syrup starts in the 40 to 1 range for sugar maples and goes all the way up to 100 to 1 for birches. That means every 40 gallons (or 100) of sap results in 1 gallon of finished syrup. That can almost feel disheartening but I promise it's not.
Sometimes when the weather is just right, we'll see the bees from our hive indulging in the sweet sap.
Is it Worth It?
Absolutely. While the sap to syrup ratio can feel a little disheartening most of the process is fairly hands off and doesn't require a bunch of hard labor for the backyard tapper. Beyond the hands-off aspect of home tapping, as in anything homegrown and homemade, the flavor and reward of tapping for syrup can not be beat.
Learning how to add some homegrown sugar to the homestead is a valuable skill and a tasty one at that. Because mother nature does the bulk of the work and the boiling can be done while other things are being attended too, tapping can usually fit rather well into already full days without feeling stressful. As the weather starts to warm up this late winter and early spring, give backyard tree tapping a try and enjoy some homegrown syrup on those pancakes the rest of the year.