Cheery bird song has summoned the great awakening of spring, and all around me I see the life force in the land rejuvenated after a grey, frosty slumber. I don’t know about the rest of the Northeastern region, but winter was rather unusual for us…then again, when is it ever predictable here? 😛 The season started late, and then a snap into action in January with lots of snow followed by seasonably chill temperatures, continuing into March. Our last significant snowfall was on the 20th with 4 inches accumulation. The final tally according to my own calculations is 58 inches for my locality…a lot of snow within a relatively short time-span, but not a record season. If you want to check out data from previous years for inland Connecticut (Windsor Locks area), go to http://www.erh.noaa.gov/box/climate/bdlsnw.shtml.
Except for sparse patches of snow shielded from the warming sun and leftover ice on ponds and lakes, all signs of winter have faded away. The buds of Long-beaked and Cat Willows have blossomed into their characteristic fuzzy catkins, and for me, this is a clear indication that the sap is once again flowing.
During these early days of spring, it has become a sort of seasonal ritual for many outdoorsmen/women to collect birch sap. There are a variety of birch species one can choose from, and all will generally have the same slightly sweet flavour due to minute quantities of xylitol. In the Northeastern region, our native species include Golden or Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), Grey Birch (B. populifolia), Paper Birch (B. Papyrifera), Heart-leaved Paper Birch (B. cordifolia), River Birch (B. nigra), and Sweet or Cherry Birch (B. lenta). I have found Sweet and Golden Birch to be the best because there is also a faint taste of wintergreen in the sap, a naturally occurring form of methyl salicilate. There are also two naturalised European species you may find – Silver Birch (B. pendula) and Downy Birch (B. pubescens).
Now, some of you may notice that I did not include Bog Birch (B. pumila), Dwarf Birch (B. minor), and Glandular Birch (B. glandulosa), which are native dwarf trees…the reason is that these species are classified as rare. Even if they weren’t, their small size limits the quantity of sap you can collect. That said, I do not recommend harvesting sap from birches that have a trunk diameter of less than 20 cm/8 inches. The mature trees (31 cm/12 inches and larger) will yield more and should heal quicker than younger ones.
There are many different ways of harvesting sap, some of which are less injurious to the tree than others. The method I will show you has been tried and tested, and it doesn’t require any fancy tools besides a knife, a pot or bucket (or whatever you want to use to collect the sap), and a glob of pitch. Done with care, it does very little harm to the tree and is a sustainable practice. Birch sap is best harvested in early spring when the flow is at its greatest.
Select a mature birch (here I’ve chosen Sweet Birch) that is live and healthy. **If there is a water source close-by, be aware of the possibility that it may be contaminated with pollutants which the tree may or may not filter. If the water is known to be contaminated, don’t risk it. Find another tree in a different location.**
Begin by carving a tap from a piece of downed deadwood. It doesn’t have to be intricate, just something that will carry the sap down into your pot or bucket. A split twig will work great, just be sure to remove all the bark and scrape out the pith…this will act as a channel for the sap to flow. Shave the twig about 2.5 cm/an inch down from one end to roughly 2-2.5 mm thickness – this will be the part that inserts into the sapwood.
At around chest height up the trunk, take your knife and angle it slightly upwards against the bark. You don’t want to angle it straight into the tree, because gravity will not be working in your favour. Too steep an angle may break off a chunk of inner bark and expose an area of sapwood that can later become infected from insect damage. Push the knife into the tree gently at first, and then tap it in about 2.5 cm/an inch, but no more than 4 cm/1.5 inches. If sap doesn’t start to drip down your knife blade, carefully wiggle the knife side to side slightly. Once it starts to trickle, remove your knife and insert the wooden tap. Sometimes you have to make final adjustments to your tap so that it fits into the tree and carries the sap. Once it is fitted, all you need to do is place your pot or bucket on the ground to collect the drips, and wait for it to fill. You can also tie the container to the tree if you wish.
In the meantime, I scouted the surrounding area for Partidgeberries. It was too early in the new season to find any edible greens. After about 45 minutes of foraging, I gathered a small handful. Nothing substantial, but enough for a quick snack :).
Patridgeberry is perhaps our most abundant woodland ground cover. Further north and in higher elevations, however, Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and Snowberry (G. hispidula) will be found more prevalent.
I returned to the tapped Sweet Birch and found a little over a cup (237 ml) of the precious liquid in my pot. For me, this is all I need… I don’t make birch beer or wine, that requires a lot more sap. When you’ve collected the amount of sap you want, it is important to respect the tree and take some time to close the small wound we’ve created, else it will attract insects and may become infected. Remove the tap, push down hard onto the wound until the seepage slows to a halt, and hold it there for about a minute. This closes off the opening and will allow the tree to heal itself properly. You could leave it at that, but I like to plaster on some fresh pitch to seal the wound – this will speed up the healing. Conifers are well adapted to fend off many types borer insects because they exude a tacky sap from their wounds.
So then… what do I do with my birch sap? I just drink it raw, as is. I find it to be incredibly refreshing, more so than plain water. In Scandinavia, the Saami people drink birch sap as a booster tonic. Some folks like to use it to brew up a bush tea (mind you, you’ll need more than a cup of sap for that), so feel free to experiment. 🙂