What Is It?

What is It?

As spring approaches in eastern Canada, a tradition is repeated each year: the fascinating ritual of tapping the maple (Acer spp.). The process results in treasures that tantalize the palates of those who are fortunate enough to have access to maple products.

As early as 1540, European explorers travelling on the St. Lawrence River (which forms part of the international border between New York State and the province of Ontario and crosses through both that province and Quebec) observed the abundance of North American maple forests and by 1606, the process of making maple syrup by collecting sap and subsequently evaporating it had been recorded.

Sap spile held in hand

These early explorers and settlers noticed that the indigenous population slashed certain trees to collect the sap. The harvesting process evolved, with producers boring small holes into trees and inserting a device that allowed the sap to be collected. This less invasive system limited damage to the maple so that the tree's health was not compromised as it was by the hack-and-slash method. The collected liquid was boiled down to create syrup or cake used to sweeten foods or to eat as candy. It was thought that its commercial production might lessen dependence on sugar-cane products from the Caribbean. Although that has not necessarily proved true today, the process of harvesting maple sap has turned into a large, sustainable industry in parts of Canada and the United States.

The sap spile (shown) is basically a tube-like unit inserted into a hole bored into a maple tree. It may also have a hook to hold a sap bucket. Some older and larger trees can have up to four taps inserted at one time.

Sap spile held in hand

The earliest spiles were carved of wood and were basically just hollow tubes. To make them, suitable woods with a pithy core that could be pushed out, such as sumac, elderberry and willow, were used. The next progression was carved units that had a notch or wire hook that held the sap pail. From there it was an easy progression to metal spiles, which could be used for years. There were two popular types, cast or rolled sheet metal.

D.S. Orr

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