By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – While the ground was wet from morning rain, the afternoon could not have been more perfect Saturday for families to gather at Earthplace Nature Discovery Center. They were drawn to a “Sap to Sugar” program, the highlight of which was a look at how sap is extracted from maple trees.
Naturalist Becky Newman led the event at the 10 Woodside Lane site. Typically, she said, big sugar maples close to the main facility are tapped, but the trees were sick and had to be cut down. An inventory of remaining sugar maples on the property determined there were no others mature enough, though Newman wanted the group to at least see one.
Newman led the group along Swamp Loop Trail, where she found a specimen. “This tree is far too skinny,” she explained. “It needs to be at least a foot wide to tap, otherwise I take too much sap out.”
The group followed her to the opposite side of the property, to a red maple. “The red maple sap is not as sweet as the sugar maple, but still produces good syrup,” she said. As she made a hole with a portable drill, hammered in a tap and then hung a collection bag, she added, “It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. And the syrup will be lighter at this time in the season due to fewer nutrients being available.”
The sap harvesting season spans from February to mid-March, and ideal conditions are warm days and cold nights to produce the best flow. While tin pails are frequently used to collect sap, Earthplace uses three-gallon plastic bags. “These keep squirrels, leaves, bugs and sticks out of the mix,” Newman said.
Newman guided the group back to the main grounds where a campfire had been set and Earthplace Nursery School Teacher Mary Ann Hood stood waiting to read children an event-themed book, “Sugarbush Spring.” As the kids listened in, Newman visited each with a large bottle of pure Canadian maple syrup, of which she offered samples.
Children were also treated to hot chocolate, served from large containers. And when they weren’t taking part in scheduled activities, they were racing around the grounds, playing on a swingset and climbing on a statue of a bear.
“I wanted my daughter and her friend to understand about nature and where some of our wild foods come from,” said parent Alexandra Horsky. “We were a little nervous about the weather this morning, so glad to see the sun this afternoon. Some snow actually would have been nice, because it ties in better with the sap tapping.”
The weather didn’t seem to be a concern to seven-year-old Helen Ramachandran, who was enjoying a cup of chocolate. “It was fun to taste the maple syrup, though I’ve had it before,” she said. “We go maple sugaring every year.”