Saturday, February 21, 2009

Makin' Maple Syrup-Part Two

I know what you are thinking... this is NOT Jed Clampett's whiskey still. It is our sap evaporator.

After collecting the sap, we bring it back to our evaporator. It is driven by a wood-burning stove. The wood comes from trees that were blown down in storms, etc... around Indianapolis. We pour the sap through a filter to strain out any unwanted debris (leaves, bugs, etc…). Then, we pour it into the evaporator. The sap will cook at a low boil for about 10-12 hours. We usually start a batch on a given day and finish it up the next. Some producers will stay with a batch until it has finished. Modern day facilities have machines that monitor the syrup and have automatic shut-offs. It takes a long time to remove the excess water in the form of steam from the sap. What will be left behind is concentrated sugars that eventually make syrup. True maple syrup has nothing added to it; it is pure sap collected from the tree and boiled. Nothing else.

After boiling for what seems forever on the evaporator and the sap has started to turn gold in color, we transfer it to a smaller finishing pan so we can watch it closely. A batch of syrup can be completely ruined if it burns at this time. We use a turkey cooker for our finishing pan. The syrup will cook for another 2 hours or so until it reaches 218 degrees F. We the perform a sheeting test, for thickness. If the syrup drips off the end of a metal scoop quickly, it is not thick enough. If it holds together to form a sugary sheet, it is ready. Lastly, we use a hydrometer, a special tool used to measure the specific gravity or density of the syrup, to check if it is at the right consistency.

If all the tests indicate it is ready, we will filter the syrup through three filters, then take it inside to bottle. We heat it up on the stove to 180 degrees F, then bottle it while it is still hot.

Here is an action shot of my two co-workers busily working while I am goofing off and taking pictures. :) Miranda Sears is in the foreground and Chris, Captain Sugar-Maker, is in the back checking the evaporator. And, yes, he insists on being called Captain Sugar-Maker.

We are currently taking reservations for school, scout and homeschool groups. These educational programs cover the history of making maple syrup and have lots of hands-on activities for children to enjoy. We also have a public maple syrup program on Saturday March 7th. You can register by calling the park at (317) 861-5167.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Makin' Maple Syrup

Right now, Southeastway Park is smack-dab in the middle of maple syrup season. Our syrup making season is February to mid-March. This means loooonnnnggg days of collecting sap, carrying wood and watching sap boil. And, I am a great sap-boilin'-watch'r, I tell you whut!

The process at Southeastway all starts with the Sugar Maple tree (Acer saccharum), one of autumn's most visually pleasing trees. This is the tree used traditionally in syrup making. Other maple species, hickories and tulip trees can be used to make syrup, but the other tree species have sap with a lower sugar content. Their sap contains around a 1% sugar content, so it will take 80 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup instead of the usual 40 gallons of sap needed from the sugar maple. The sugar maple has 2% to 3% sugar content in its sap.

I had to throw this picture in from Wikipedia showing the range of colors that can be observed in the sugar maple. Deep yellows, fiery reds, crimsons and even purples can grace the same tree in the fall.

We tap the trees in early February, when the nights are cold and the days are above freezing. These are the days when the sap runs the best. I will explain why in just a bit. Farther north, where it is a bit colder, production doesn’t start until late Feb-early March and runs into April.

Tapping of trees, if done correctly, will not harm the tree. We drill into the tree with a 7/16th bit (simialr in size to ones pinky) about an inch and a half into the sapwood at a slight angle. We use a hammer to tap in the spile, the metal doo-hickey sticking out of the tree in the above photo.

Due to pressure in the tree, the sap will begin to flow almost immediately after tapping. Since the hole is drilled in at a slight angle, the sap drips out of the hole more easily. We hang buckets from the hook on the spile to capture the sap. There is a custom-made lid for each bucket to keep out debris and rain.

The sap is clear in color. There is a puddle of sap in my palm, really. If you look closely, you can see it glistening. You may wonder, how does maple syrup turn golden brown? Well, just as white bread turns golden brown when toasted, the sugars in the sap turn a lovely amber color when cooked over a long period. I will share a funny story-when explaining this to a group of kindergarteners, one exclaimed "My toast is always black because Mommy burns it. " Poor Mommy, she was standing right next to him!

After the season is over in mid-March, we will pull out the spiles. The cambium layer of the tree will “heal” the hole left in the tree by producing new cells that plug the hole. This is last year's tap mark in the center of the tree.

We tap between 50-60 trees. Some we attach a bucket and spile combo, some we use a more modern plastic bag, and on one group of trees in the above photo we use the most modern tubing method. A series of trees along a slope are tapped and tubing is strung between them. Gravity will pull the sap down the tubes drop by drop. We have a large container at the end of the line to collect all the sap from the six or seven trees. This way, only one container needs to be emptied instead of seven. More efficient. This is the method the large producers use, only they have many more trees connected.

Tomorrow, we will discuss how we turn the sap into delicious syrup.
But wait, for you science nerds, there is more. Here is an explanantion on how the sap travels in the tree, driven by atmospheric and internal pressure and temperature fluctuations. It made sense, but at the same time made my head hurt. You are forewarned.
Maple sap flow may occur anytime during the maple tree's dormant season when temperatures hover around the freezing point. In Indiana this can occur October through the following mid-March. The largest flows take place during the months of February and March. During this time, we frequently have freezing temperatures during the night and warmer days . When these warmer daytime temperatures are followed by below freezing periods, usually at night, strong sap flows can be expected.
How does this happen? Here is one explaination I found online. "Current theory suggest that when temperatures fall below freezing, negative pressure (suction) is created within the sapwood of maple trees as a result of sap freezing, carbon dioxide dissolving in cooled sap, and gas contraction during cooling. As a result of this negative pressure, water moves from the soil into the tree increasing the sap volume. When the temperature then rises above freezing and the frozen sap thaws, forces (including pressure from released gases, osmotic, caused by the presence of sugar and other substances dissolved in the sap, previous gas compression, and gravity) act on the increased sap volume to create a positive pressure. This pressure develops first in the twigs, then in the trunk, and finally in the roots of the maple tree. The positive pressures that develop can be considerable, rising to 40 or more pounds per square inch in untapped trees. When temperatures fall, the process is reversed and pressures are reduced. Below freezing temperatures are required for strong negative pressures to again develop. Much weaker sap pressures develop if below freezing temperatures are not reached and sustained long enough for ice to form within the tree. The presence of sucrose in sap may also be involved in the maple sap flow mechanism. Sap flow occurs when a wound is made in the sapwood of a maple tree which has positive sap pressure. Sap flow from the wound will continue as long as the pressures inside the tree are greater than atmospheric pressure outside the tree. This period of sap flow (pressure dissipation) will vary from a few (1 or 2) to several (15 to 20) hours in length. Length of the sap flow period and the amount of sap produced appear to be affected by several environmental and tree metabolic factors including the minimum and maximum temperatures experienced, sap sugar concentration, the duration of the freezing and thawing cycles, and the availability of soil moisture. For strong sap flows to be repeated, a suitable temperature cycle above and below freezing must again occur to allow strong positive sap pressure to develop. Sap flow temporarily ceases during the "maple season" when suitable temperature cycles do not occur (cold or warm periods) and ceases entirely when suitable temperature cycles end for the year. " Nuff said!
Also, we cannot make maple syrup in Indiana much past March 15th because the tree starts to use the sugars to form leaves and the syrup takes on a bitter taste. Plus, warmer temperatures spoil sap quickly. A lose/lose situation.
Anyway, tomorrow we make syrup!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunset in Indy

When most people think of beautiful sunsets, Indianapolis probably does not first come to mind. However, on my way home from work the other day, the sunset was so wonderful I had to stop along the road a couple of times to snap a few shots. Enjoy!


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wordless Wednesday


Tuesday, February 10, 2009


This bird is a Mugwamp.

And why is this bird called a Mugwamp?

Drum roll, please....

Because its Mug is on one side of the fence and its Wump is on the other. :)
This is a joke my Dad would tell and I was reminded of it today. (photo by Charles Creamer)


Friday, February 6, 2009

Zombie Cardinals?

If you pay attention, you can learn something new every day. And today, I learned that cardinals will eat meat. Yep, they are vicious killers and should be watched carefully around foo-foo dogs,
kitties and such. No, I am totally making that up. But, like many animals, they are opportunists; if food is available, they will snack away.

Nice photo or mug shot? Pic by my big bro, Charles Creamer.

I love puzzles and weird nature stuff, so when Brad Bumgardner posted a story on IN-bird, a birdwatching listserv in Indiana, my interest was peaked. Theresa Rody had discovered a mouse that had fallen into a fish tank at the Salamonie Interpretive Center and drowned. She threw the dead mouse outside into the snow.

Is that snow on this female cardinals beak or bits of brains? Pic by Charles Creamer.

Later in the day, when she and Lynnanne Fager looked out the bird window to see what species were there, they witnessed an amazing thing. Right out of a horror movie for rodents, a Northern Cardinal had grabbed the dead mouse and was eating its head. Now I have heard of zombies eating heads and brains and such, but not our chipper little cardinals! You can view the photos here.

Checking a few sources, I found out this is not the norm, but not unheard of. Birds of North America Online does not mention cardinals eating mice. They eat 29% animal matter, mostly insects, and also spiders, slugs, snails, centipedes and bivalves. 71% of their diet is plant based, mainly berries and seeds. They referenced a paper by W. L McAtee from 1908 called the Food Habits of Grosbeaks.

Don't get any closer, junco, or I'll pierce your eyes and devour them!
Pic by Charles Creamer.
Digging a little more, I checked Bent. Good ol' Arthur Cleveland Bent and his Life Histories of North American Birds. He didn't let me down. He referenced the same paper by McAtee, but added "He mentions that a male cardinal was seen eating a field mouse." Apparently, the BNA didn't have any other collaborating references, so they left it out. I now wonder if cardinals only scavenge on mice that are already dead, or if they will go for live ones as well. Sounds like a research project for a willing grad student. Nature never ceases to amaze!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Wishing for Spring

I like snow. Honestly. But, I am so over it. Four inches yesterday paired with bitter cold just about did it. Yuck.

So, I am wishing for spring today and have been looking through some of my ephemeral wildflower pictures.

Trout Lily

I love Trout Lilies. One of the first spring wildflowers. The speckled leaves, spotted like a trout, give it its name.


Hepatica comes in many color varieties. I have seen snowy white, pale to vivid pink, but this deep blue is easily my favorite.


Its delicate white petals make Bloodroot a crowd favorite. This is one you have to get out early to see, for a strong wind or rain will knock the petals right off. The root, if broken, produces a deep red liquid similar to blood, hence the name.

Dutchman's Breeches

Like little pantaloons strung on a clothesline, Dutchman's Breeches is a uniquely shaped flower that is realted to Bleeding Hearts. This one always makes me smile. I love hearing kids giggle about the name.

Hope you enjoyed this small taste of spring. I can't wait until it is here to stay.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Happy Groundhog Day????

What a a bizarre holiday. Take an overgrown member of the squirrel family, stick it outside, then gather crowds around to stare at it to determine whether spring will be early or late. Yep, just plain weird.

Groundhog, whistlepig, woodchuck. All names for a large rodent in the squirrel family that has somehow become a traditional predictor of spring.

I have never understood the whole concept. Since my aunt's birthday was on Groundhog's day, my mom would watch the news just to see what the groundhog predicted and would talk about it for weeks. Drove me crazy!

There are a lot of flaws in this whole groundhog-spring-predicting-rigamarole. One, it just depends on whether it is cloudy or sunny whether the groundhog sees its shadow or not. Sunny=late spring, cloudy=early spring. No groundhog needed.

Yet, some say the groundhog is needed in the process. That it must see its shadow for spring to be delayed. How do you know Mr. Groundhog saw its shadow? Maybe it wasn't paying attention. Maybe it was too busy hamming it up for the cameras. How do you tell if a groundhog has actually seen its shadow? Does it do something to indicate it? Growl, chatter, wiggle its bottom?These are questions I would ask my parents and I never got a straight answer.

Another big flaw in the woodchuck-weather-predicting-hoopla. Groundhogs are true hibernators. The wild ones are still asleep in nice, warm burrows under the ground on February 2nd. So they shouldn't be out looking at their shadows, anyway. They eat plants and do not normally emerge until March or April. They don't chuck wood either. The woodchuck name comes from "wuchak", the Algonquian name for the animal.

So, I am not convinced. Yet, for all you believers out there, I will post the results from around the countryside. Boo, Puxatawny Phil, you naysayer! I am going with Malverne Mel's and Dunkirk Dave's predictions. Spring is just around the corner!

Early Spring-Roxborough Jorge Naba
Early Spring-French Creek Freddie
6 more weeks of winter-Buckeye Chuck
Early Spring-Saskatoon Evan
6 more weeks of winter-Balzac Billy
Early Spring-Malverne Mel
6 more weeks of winter-Woodstock Willie
6 more weeks of winter-Jimmy the Groundhog
6 more weeks of winter-Octoraro Orphie
Early Spring-Staten Island Chuck
6 more weeks of winter-Wiarton Willy
6 more weeks of winter-Shubenacadie Sam
6 more weeks of winter-Punxsutawney Phil
Early Spring-Dunkirk Dave

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Superbowl Sunday

So who do you think I would like
to win the Superbowl???

Photo by John Howard

Go Cardinals!