XENIA — Not too cold — not too hot — but “just right” is what Greene County Parks & Trails (GCP&T) naturalists hope for as maple sugaring season approaches each year.
This “just right” they talk about refers to specific temperatures — when the nights are below freezing and the days are nearing 45 degrees and sunny.
The sap runs, the buckets fill, and the naturalists are happy.
But in Southwest Ohio, as winters get warmer, maple sugaring season is inevitably getting shorter.
The maples that live in the Sugar Grove at Xenia’s Narrows Reserve Nature Center are accustomed to being decorated with hanging metal buckets every year. This is year 26, according to GCP&T Chief Nauralist Cris Barnett, for sugaring at the reserve.
“It has changed dramatically over the years, partially because of the weather,” Barnett said.
The naturalist recalls a winter three years back when it was “bitterly cold,” a winter that “hung on forever.”
And then she speaks of last year, a winter that was contrastingly warm, without much snow.
But they both had something in common. They were lousy seasons, lasting maybe seven to 10 days, when the “normal” for a sugar maple season is about six weeks. Sugaring can begin as early as late January, but typically occurs from the second week of February to the second week of March.
This winter, with many spring-like days, brings another short season.
Barnett explained that the up-and-down weather doesn’t allow the sap to run consistently. When it’s too cold, she said, the sap doesn’t travel through the trees. When it’s too warm, she continued, the sugars in the sap begin to “skunk.”
“The trees will start to use the sugar out of that sap because that’s what’s helping the leaves to grow, the buds to form. So the sap that you’re getting out of it has even a smaller percentage [of sugar] and it will get to the point where it has this foul odor so you don’t want it for syrup,” Barnett explained.
Maple sugaring at Narrows doesn’t just mean tapping trees and collecting sap — it also means cooking the water-like substance down to syrup during an eight-hour evaporation process, the same syrup that covers pancakes at the annual Pancake Breakfast, which will be held 8:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 4 at Bellbrook Middle School.
“We’re a year ahead,” Barnett said, explaining that they use one season’s syrup for the next year’s breakfast event. “I’ve got a little in reserve but it’s not going to last me another year … So yeah, this makes me nervous,” she said, laughing.
Typically, the nature center makes between 15 and 22 gallons in a season, tapping usually between 30 and 40 trees, depending on the weather and the health of the trees. Last year, during a 10-day season, Narrows workers made less than five gallons of syrup with close to 55 trees tapped.
“I don’t like to spend a lot of time tapping knowing it’s not going to be a long season. And I don’t want to hurt those trees by keep tapping over and over and not getting any product. It doesn’t make sense,” Barnett said.
The ratio for sap to syrup is 40 gallons to one gallon.
But according to GCP&T Staff Naturalist Mel Grosvenor, this is partly due to the fact that climate change is altering the amount of sugar content a maple tree has.
“Maple trees now are made up of about one to two percent sugar,” Grosvenor said. “In the 1950s and 1960s, they had about four to five percent sugar.”
That means the ratio for sap to syrup at that time was about 25 gallons to one gallon.
“Things have changed because of the winters. Now — this is the normal,” she said.
If the trees are stressed from the “crazy weather swings” now, Grosvenor is stressed about what could happen in the future.
“Even in my lifetime we may no longer be doing it,” she said. “[As the trend continues] climate isn’t going to be suitable for sugar maples here.”
Barnett, too, fears the inevitable is coming.
“If our temperatures keep rising, we’re going to lose this. I don’t think it will be in my or your lifetime, but I think as our climate continues to make this jump, we’re not going to be able to do this anymore – our winters are just going to get too warm,” she said. “And I chuckle when everybody says ‘I hate snow’ … [because] that cold temperature is really important for us to maple sugar.”
Although there is fear that sugar mapling will end, it stems from a love these naturalists — and their team of volunteers that come back year after year — have for Ohio’s late-winter tradition.
“This is one of my favorite programs that we do,” Barnett said. “Everybody wants to be outside in the spring and summer. Everybody wants to play when it’s warm and sunshine-y. And people stop thinking about what’s going on in the natural world this time of year … “
“It’s one of these “awe” things — ‘cause who would know you could get such sweet stuff out of a tree?”
Contact Anna Bolton at 937-502-4498.