Tree Sap is a versatile natural liquid that is produced by a number of trees every spring. Sap begins to flow through Maple, Sycamore and Birch trees between January and March and there is usually small window of opportunity in which it can be tapped and harvested, depending on the tree, and local climate. The collected sap can be enjoyed unprocessed as a natural and slightly sweet alternative to water, boiled down to make delicious tree sap syrup, or used to make wine and other fermented drinks. Being a sweet-toothed little bear, Arthur prefers the syrup route and we especially love making Birch Sap Syrup every spring. The FAQ below will help you understand the process of tapping a tree to harvest the sap. For instructions on how to then turn it into syrup, you can find the recipe, here.
Tree Tapping FAQ
What is Sap?
Tree sap is a clear liquid produced by certain trees and consists of water, minerals, sugars and nutrients. Every Spring, sap is produced and transported from the bottom of the tree, all the way up to the branches at the top. It enriches the new buds with energy and encourages them to develop into leaves and flowers. Sap can be enjoyed directly from the tree as a healthy and natural water substitute. In fact, birch water is often sold by posh shops at around £30 for six cans! Sap is however, more commonly used by foragers to make syrup or wine.
Which trees can I tap?
Although there are actually quite a few trees that can be tapped for sap in the UK, the three main varieties that most foragers choose are Sugar Maple, Silver Birch and Sycamore. Sugar Maple is the very same tree that produces Maple Syrup, and syrup derived from Birch and Sycamore has a similar pallete and consistency, although the depth of flavour varies between each tree. It is always best to choose a very healthy, mature tree. Birches should be at least 25cm in diameter and maples and sycamores, around 30cm.
When Can I tap the Tree?
It depends on the tree and where in the country you are! Sycamore and Maples are usually tapped betweeen January and March. Birch Trees only have a very small window of sap production and this tends to fall in March. Where we live, Birch trees tend to be ready for tapping on or around the Spring Equinox, but this may be different where you live. The easiest way to check is to make a small cut in the bark. If, within thirty seconds, you see a small drop of sap coming out, it is ready for tapping.
Do I need any Equipment?
This depends on your method of tapping. If you plan to use the traditional method, you'll need a traditional metal tree tap, known as a "spile", a hand drill, a hammer, and a bucket. Traditional metal spiles are expensive, however, and a more modern approach is to use cheaper plastic spiles (we got ours from amazon in a kit), along with a bottle, some string, some plastic tubing, a hand drill and a hammer.
If you plan to use the Branch Tap method, you only need a bottle, some seccateurs and some string.
How do I tap a Tree?
There are two main methods of tapping a tree. The traditional method involves drilling a 5-8 cm deep hole in the trunk of the tree at a slightly upward angle, about one meter up from the ground, that will fit the metal spile. The spile is hammered into the hole and a bucket is hung from it to collect the emerging sap.
As traditional metal spiles are expensive, we use a slightly different approach. We purchased cheaper plastic spiles from the interent, which came in a kit with some plastic tubing. We used a 1cm diameter bit to drill a 5-8cm deep hole into the tree trunk ata slightly upwards angle, about one meter up from the ground. We then hammered in the plastic spile and attached the tubing, which we fed into a glass bottle (a two litre plastic drinks bottle will also do) and secured this around the trunk with string. After 24 hours, you should have collected a full bottle of sap.
The alternative method is to cut off a thin, low hanging branch from the tree (around 1-2cm in diameter) and insert the cut end of the branch into a 1-2 litre bottle. The bottle should then be secured to the branch using string. This method is considered more tree friendly, but is also slower, and therefore produces less sap in a 24 hour period.
How much Sap should I take from a single tree?
Trees produce a suprising amount of sap, but we tend to limit our collection to about 5-6 litres from a single tree. Our tapping exploits tend to yield about 2 litres of crystal clear sap in a 24 hour period. We collect this sap straight away after 24 hours, swapping out for a new bottle and starting the process of turning the collected sap into syrup at home. As it contains organic matter, it does start to "go off" after a day or two and signals this by turning cloudy, so harvesting regularly every 24 hours and drinking / processing it straight away is best.
What do I do when I've collected all of my sap?
After you have harvested all the sap you require (or 5-6 litres from a single tree), you'll need to plug-up the hole you've drilled to prevent the tree from losing the nutrients it needs. There are numerous ways of doing this. Some people take a small 5-8cm length of branch, whittle it down to a point, and hammer it into the hole to seal it up. For extra protection, you can seal over the plugged hole with wax. An alternative is to use a 1cm diameter dowel plug, again, sealing with wax after insertion with a hammer. Other people plug the hole with clay or plasticine.
Branch taps can be left to seal themselves up naturally.
Can I tap the same tree every year?
Whilst commercial sap collectors do tap the same tree every year, we recommend only tapping a tree once every 2-3 years to give it plenty of time recover and heal properly.