The Front Yard Sugar Maple
The front yard of the old farm house on the Currant Farm is distinguished by one of the most recognizable and beloved trees of the north stretch of this country, a sugar maple. We’re very fortunate to have a vintage black and white photograph of the farm house, distempered with just breath of sepia, which has lived in the house it depicts from the time it was taken. It’s been lovingly passed down through subsequent owners since. This single photograph tells so many stories. It records the very same doors, windows and shutters that adorn the house today. It teases with the stories of chimneys that no longer exist. We’ll explore that photo more deeply in another edition of “Notes.” In the center of the photo is an old woman standing next to a sugar maple sapling which I’m guessing to be about 10 years old. Given her clothing, the gingerbread on the house and a few other clues, I’m speculating that the photo was taken in the late 1800s. With those details, I’ll date the venerable old sugar maple in the front yard at about 150 years old today.
Many of the farmers who have called this place home over the last two millennium had a shared spring ritual, maple sugaring. It was one of the first farm chores of the new year as the deep winter snow cover began to compact under the stronger and longer rays of late winter sun each day. Maple sugar was very important and often the only sweetener that isolated pioneer farms had for baking , curing hams, bacon and other meats and if you had enough, treats for the kids. Sugar has gotten a bit of a bad reputation over the years but it does more than just make things sweet, add calories and rot your teeth. It’s an important chemical component of baking, cooking, and preservation. Crusty breads are crusty because they are generally baked without sugar. I love a good crusty baguette but if you leave them out overnight, you might break a tooth on them the next day. Sugar has hygroscopic properties, meaning that it retains moisture. Bread, cookies and other baked goods will not stale as quickly when baked with sugar which was important to a culture that had to make the most of important ingredients such as flour. Sugar also delays gluten development, helps to leaven (rise) baked goods, especially in the absence of baking soda and baking powder and it’s a great stabilizer.
The annual winter sap flow is caused by pressure in the trunk of the tree generated by alternating daily cycles of freezing nights and warm days which mostly happens as winter begins to exit stage left to make room for the next act. The pressure causes the roots to take up moisture from the soil and transports it up through the xylem to awaken the sleeping buds which then open giving birth to flowers and leaves. During this period, the sap migrates up the xylem and during very cold nights, freezes along the adjacent inner walls of the hollow fiber cells. Then, as the next day’s warm sun thaws it, the sap begins to move again and on its way to the waiting buds. En route, it will leak out of any wound. The hollow maple sap spiles that farmers pounded into drilled holes earlier in the year are the perfect outlet for this abundant elixir . The combination of freezing nights and warm days are crucial to sap flow and are not the same every year so some years produce more sap and for more days than others. On top of this, it can take 40 gallons or more of sap from the sugar maple to make just one gallon of maple syrup and even more for maple sugar. This was a precious commodity indeed.
Hauling sap to the fireplace or stove in the kitchen is heavy work so virtually every new homesteader in the Northeast would find several sugar maple seedlings up in the woods and transplant them close to the farm house. It’s very common to still find mature sugar maples around old farm houses. Later on, as the farms became more established, an enterprising farmer might plant a few acres or more of sugar maples called a sugar bush and build a sap shack nearby for the purpose of boiling sap and producing syrup and sugar. With the new European settlers came metal pails making the process easier to make and store. Maple sugar and syrup was one of the first agricultural products in the “New World.”