As an herbalist, forager and mother, I’m constantly trying to find new ways to connect my family with nature. During our explorations we have found some sweet surprises in unexpected places. We’ve sipped nectar-infused dewdrops off of flowering black caps, nibbled the ends of red clovers and columbines and licked the sap off of an injured maple sapling. Needless to say, our wild sweet tooth has grown. This year the kids and I decided to try our hands at sugaring.
The Driftless, however, doesn’t have many sugar maples. Our autumn glows with beautiful gold and bronze colors instead of the vibrant reds, oranges and yellows found in northern Wisconsin. Because of this, sugaring hadn’t seemed possible until I read that syrup can be made from other tree species, including the black walnuts covering our woods. Curious to learn more, I discovered the Department of Natural Resources’ basal map, which shows us that Wisconsin’s highest concentration of black walnut is found in the Driftless region. Our answer to the northern sugar maples!
I decided to start small and not invest too much of our time or resources into a speculative new project. After rounding up some spiles (metal tree taps), tubing and old milk jugs, we eagerly awaited the day when the outside temperatures started to oscillate between freezing nights and warm (higher than 42 degrees) days. This ebb and flow of temperature is what “wakes the trees up” and starts the sap run.
The first sip of tree sap
was so clean, cold and refreshing. Most surprisingly was the wave of nostalgia that overcame me. The sap tasted exactly like the icicles I always ate with my sister as little kids. Bright, mineral, slightly sweet and scented, like the smell of moss after rain. Like distilled forest air.
I found a couple of trees 8-12 inches in diameter, big enough for one to two spiles each. Spiles should be placed on the south side of the tree to take advantage of the warming sunlight. We tapped our trees, snaked our tubes, nestled in our jugs and waited.
It took a few days before we started to see any action. At first it was just a few drips, followed by a few more. I read that in emergencies tree sap can be used as a water substitute, and so of course I couldn’t resist tasting. As soon as the jugs filled up a few inches the kids and I trudged through the snow to fill our cups.
The first sip was so clean, cold and refreshing. Most surprisingly was the wave of nostalgia that overcame me. The sap tasted exactly like the icicles I always ate with my sister as little kids. Bright, mineral, slightly sweet and scented, like the smell of moss after rain. Like distilled forest air.
That flavor made it hard not to simply drink down the sap every day. But I of course had to teach the kids patience, and so we let the jugs fill. Soon the trees increased their flow of sap and we were collecting a few gallons per day. We boiled the sap down for several hours, reducing it to glossy, amber syrup that had a sweet richness reminiscent of toffee.
Much of the syrup ended up in glass jars, to be poured over pancakes or vanilla ice cream. Some we reduced even further and dropped onto wax paper to make candies. Most, alas, remained in the trees. With spring busyness around the corner, we soon moved on to other projects. But every time we walk past the walnut trees we give them a little pat of thanks, and smile as we think about tasting them again next year.
Caitlin Hatch is a mother of two, a watercolor artist and has her Family Herbalist Certificate from the School of Natural Healing. She and her husband co-own and operate Uplands Cheese, just north of Dodgeville. Her website is caitlinleline.com.
Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail email@example.com.