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You have a maple tree in your backyard, and for years you have been thinking about tapping it to make syrup, but you have one concern: does tapping a maple tree hurt it? Don't worry. We've done the research and found the answers for you.
The simple answer is no; tapping a maple tree doesn't hurt it, as long as it's tapped correctly.
This, of course, leads to the following question: what is the correct way to tap a maple tree? Continue reading, and you'll see it's not as difficult as you believe!
Does Tapping a Maple Tree Hurt it?
Using incorrect tools, doing the process incorrectly, or not having enough patience can lead to hurting the tree. The best way to tap a maple tree is to be careful and precise. Use the right method to tap, and your tree will not be harmed.
What Does A Maple Tree Look Like?
There are 128 species of maple trees, and although you can make syrup from any maple tree, it's the sugar maple that produces the best quality syrup. Because of this, we need to make sure the tree your tapping is a maple and not an oak!
The three ways to identify a maple tree are by the leaves, bark, and seed pods.
The leaves are the easiest to identify. They are lobed, having between 3-9 lobes with jagged edges and prominent veins. The sugar maple is 3-5 inches wide with five lobes. If you're unsure that you're looking at a maple leaf, take a look at the Canadian flag for guidance.
Maple trunks have vertical stripes of thick, dark brown bark, with narrow grooves in between. The seed pods (or "fruit") are called samaras. They are winged so that the seeds can be carried far with the wind. You may also remember them from when you opened the sticky seed and stuck it on the tip of your nose as a kid.
How Old Should The Tree Be In Order To Tap It?
It takes about forty years for a maple tree to grow large enough to be tapped. Since a maple can be tapped indefinitely, some syrup in New England comes from trees planted during the Civil War. Comparatively, forty years is no time at all!
Is Your Drill Bit Clean And Sharp?
Drilling is an essential part of tapping because doing it incorrectly can damage both the sap-gathering and the tree itself. It's best to use a new bit that wouldn't have come in contact with any outside dirt or mold and would be sharp enough to make a clean, smooth hole. Dull bits can create ragged holes, which can lead to the growth of bacteria that will inhibit sap flow.
Drill into the tree approximately 1.5” past the bark and into the white wood angled slightly upward. The total depth should be about 2.5”, and less than .5" wide, and should be perfectly round.
What's The Best Way To Insert The Tap?
Now that you have the hole clear out the shavings with a clean maple twig. Don't try to blow out the shavings since that will introduce bacteria into the hole.
Place your tap in the hole and gently tap it in. Use a rubber or wooden mallet; metal hammers can cause the tap to go too far and cause unnecessary damage to the tree. If you're using plastic taps, it's best to push them in by hand.
How Should The Taps Be Removed?
Once sap season is over, it's time to take the taps out.
Some experts say not to use a hammer or pliers to take the taps out, as you may injure the tree. Sometimes, though, you need some leverage to pull the tap out. Using the back of a standard hammer is okay, but do not yank or twist the tap. It may take longer than you want, but it's much better to go slowly than force it.
After you gently slide the taps out, clean them well and store them until next year. Some sap may continue to drip from the tree as the tree works to heal itself; this is normal. Don't try to re-tap the tree or stop the flow.
Can The Tree Be Tapped Again?
Trees can be tapped over and over again. Just make sure that the new tap hole is twelve inches above and six inches away from any previous holes. You won't run out of space; remember, the tree is growing, giving you more area to tap over the years.
Although we covered all of the bases, here are a couple of other things to keep in mind when tapping your maples.
How Small Of A Maple Tree Can I Tap?
If you don't know the age of your maple tree, you can always figure out if it's old enough to tap by its size. Do not tap if the tree is less than ten inches in diameter (31" in circumference).
To find the circumference, which is easier to gauge, wrap a measuring tape around the tree, four feet up from the tree’s base. Don't wrap the tape too tightly; it's better to have the tree too small and wait until next year than to tap too small a tree.
Should You Plug Maple Tap Holes?
There's no need to plug up the tap hole with twigs, sawdust, or any commercial product at the end of maple season.
Trees know how to heal their wounds all by themselves. By the time you remove the spout, the tree will already be repairing itself. It will grow new wood, completely enclosing the tap hole within a few years.
How Many Times Can You Tap A Maple Tree?
A tree whose trunk is over 31" and under 44" in circumference can only be tapped once per season. You can damage a tree if you tap more than that, which can affect sap production.
If it is over 44" in circumference and under 60", you can drill two holes. Make sure the holes are as far from each other as possible.
If the tree is over 61", you can tap the tree three times. Again, keep the taps as far from each other as possible, and three's the limit.
How Long Can You Leave A Tap In a Maple Tree?
A tap should stay in the maple the entire sap season, about 4-5 weeks long. Above-freezing days followed by below-freezing nights are the best conditions for sap flow. This usually happens in February and ends in mid-March.
Once the trees start budding, the sugar content in the sap drops and starts getting cloudy, making it no longer suitable for syrup. This, along with empty buckets, is a good sign to pull out the taps.
Sometimes, a few taps are usually forgotten or are purposefully left in the trees. As much as the tree seems to want to help you get the sap, this tap is unwelcome, kind of like a needle in an arm.
If the tap is firmly installed - which it should be if you followed the steps in this post - the tree will grow around it. Then the opening left by a tap becomes a doorway for insects and disease, which can end your maple's sap career or its life.
It will take a lot of time and patience to tap a tree correctly, from waiting for the tree to be big enough to take the taps out properly at the end of the season. But in the end, when you taste your homemade maple creations, such as butter, spun sugar, taffy, and, of course, syrup, you'll realize all the waiting was worth it.
For more information about maples and other trees, check out the following posts: