Sap is Running
Weekends in late February are often the times nature centers across Pennsylvania hold maple tapping demonstrations, because this time of year is usually when temperature fluctuations create the conditions necessary for sap to run. According the Cornell University, “sap runs” when temperatures rise above freezing during the day and fall below freezing at night, creating pressure that begins to draw the sap up through the xylem inner bark area of the tree. This same pressure is what allows the sap to flow out of the tree when it is tapped. Sap is the fluid that runs through the tree carrying nutrients and water throughout the plant. It contains sugars which are the result of the photosynthesis that occurred during the preceding summer. Native people in the Americas were the first to practice maple sap tapping.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. While maple is the most well known type of syrup (and sugar maple is the sweetest), sap for syrup making can be tapped from many other kinds of deciduous trees as well! Walnuts, birches, ironwoods and sycamores can all be tapped.
Tapping a tree for its sap is only one way to make use of the bark of trees this time of year. Late winter/early spring is a great time for harvesting bark for making medicinal teas and tinctures as well. Other trees known for the healing benefits of their bark include birches, white willow, white oak, beech, witch hazel, cedar and apple.
Birch Bark Tincture
Birch bark tincture or tea was utilized by native people as a diaphoretic, anti-rheumatic and anti- inflamatory. Birch bark contains betulin which once converted to betulinic acid, is believed to aid in the treatment of tumors.
White birches favor colder conditions so I go looking for them when I go hiking in the Poconos. I spotted a beautiful birch on the top of Mt. Tammany last May and was even happier to spot groves of white birches near Little Gap, PA when I went skiing at Blue Mountain just a few weeks ago this winter. I harvested twigs and branches from the trees new Little Gap.
On my bucket list is to visit The Marion E Brooks Natural area, located in Elk County, PA; it contains an entire forest of white birch trees. This unusual ecosystem is a result of severe fires in the 1920’s that left soil in which very little but white birches could grow.
Making Birch Bark Tincture
- Identify birches in spring and summer
- In late winter and early spring when days are warm and nights are cold, locate the trees you found earlier in the year!
- Harvest twigs and small branches up to a half inch thick
- Use a knife to peel expose bark of branches of half inch branches
- Chop twigs and peeled branches into ½ inch to 1 inch pieces
- Put twigs and branch pieces in a jar
- Cover with vodka to about 1 inch above twigs
- Put vodka and twigs in a blender to further mascerate
- Put vodka and mascerated twigs into a jar with a lid
- Store in a cool dark place for several weeks
- Shake the jar daily
- After 3 or 4 weeks, strain off the twigs and branches
- Tincture is complete.