It’s that time of year, syrup-making season, and so a curious group of us headed on over to the Legge farmstead, where not only grinding heritage corn happens, but also the tapping of Boxelders trees. Legge has been tapping boxelder trees since 2016 and has kept very detailed records each year to perfect the process and taste.
Legge first started when a friend of his from Mandan, “who has just as many bad habits as I do, got curious about collecting and started. I said, ‘this is going to happen here.'” Legge considers bad habits to be, tapping trees, making rhubarb wine, building a root cellar, and of course, working on his sawmill, among other things.
What is a Boxelder Tree?
“It’s an easy-to-grow, very adaptable tree that is in the Acer family of trees which includes the maple. The wood of boxelder trees is soft and has no commercial value. Boxelder tree facts tell us that it usually grows on riverbanks or near water in the wild. These trees help to shelter wildlife and stabilize stream banks. However, in urban areas, they are considered a type of weed. Some boxelder maple trees are male, and some are female. The females bear blossoms that turn bright green when they pollinate.” -Teo Spengler
Most people do not care for a boxelder as the tree’s wood is weak which does not hold up to the wind or ice storms. The seeds also germinate very easily and can become a nuisance to keep out of your flower beds or gardens.
However, they are GREAT for making syrup!
What you need to know to tap a boxelder tree, including supplies
Tapping a tree is not difficult, but the entire process does take time and attention. Researching what type of product, for instance, plastic versus metal, also takes time.
Speaking of plastic versus metal when tapping trees, in the northern country, plastic is preferred as it is cheaper and will not freeze, Legge explained. “You can order your supplies online or look for used. People often try to tap and find out the work involved so you can find taps for very cheap, and most times, they are brand new.” Normal prices range from $.60-$2.00 per tap, depending on what type you get. The ones for $.60 work as well as any. Legge purchased some of his lines, which connect to the taps, from https://www.usplastic.com. Please make sure they are food-grade. The lines go into an ice-cream bucket with a lid and hole in the center. The bucket sits on the ground.
When do you start tapping your boxelder trees?
Legge starts tapping his boxelder trees about the second week in March as freezing temperatures are needed at night and warm temperatures are needed during the day to help the flowing or pumping process of the sap. Then once the buds start to come out, it’s time to leave the tree be.
When drilling into a boxelder tree, use a 5/16 bit and drill 1 1/2 inches deep and about 2 1/2 to 3 feet from the base’s bottom. If you drill into the same tree the previous year, move your tap over 6 inches and continue the same method each year following. Tap into the tree until it bounces. This means you have a good seal. The tap stays in day and night.
Once your tap is in, you need some kind of line where your syrup can go. If you plan on tapping over 50 trees, you may want to set up a system where the taps are connected and flow into one large tank or container. However, if you are tapping less than 50, Legge’s method works well.
Collecting the Sap and What it Looks Like
Your sap will look clear when it comes out. If using buckets versus having your lines go into a tank or large container, you need to check them often to prevent overflowing. “If the tree is really running, I get about an ice cream bucket full each day,” Legge stated.
“Once you’re in the throes of collecting sap, it’s pretty hard to boil,” so Legge created a clean place to store the sap using 55-gallon drums with a lid. You can use a screen to get large pieces of debris, but Legge said not to worry about the small pieces as the boiling process will take care of them. Until the collecting portion is finished, the sap stays free of vermin and debris.
Empty your buckets into your large drum or sealed barrel. Continue this process until you have finished collecting from the trees. Once finished, pull your taps. Legge modified a crowbar by grinding and rounding out the center to prevent breaking the taps or damaging the trees.
The Boiling Process
Boiling produces a lot of steam, so “unless you want to remove all of the wallpaper in your house,” Legge recommends boiling your syrup outside. Using a three-tier type system, the syrup is boiled in three metal containers at different heights so different temperatures are reached. Using Legge’s homemade setup, he rotates the syrup from one container to another as it cooks. Picking every BTU (unit of energy), he can, one pan warms, the next starts the boiling, and then the middle container holds the final product, which constantly gets added too as it cooks down. With the final temperature using the outside boiler being brought to 212-213 degrees. Legge said, as the transferring and process continues, the middle container will become more “concentrated as the sugar level is really high and the water level is really low.” This means the process will speed up.
You can use different depths of steamer pans for this boiling down process. Don’t forget to skim your sap using a large metal spoon as it cooks into syrup. There are minerals and debris you don’t want in your final product. “If you cover your pans and continue to boil through the night, make sure your lids are elevated and slanted so condensation does not build up as it will change the flavor or ruin your syrup,” Legge warns.
He also said, “people are tempted to use a barrel stove, but often it will not get hot enough.”
Once all 220 gallons of sap are rotated through the boiling process, which is until it hits the sugar stage, “We finish off the syrup inside using propane or on the stove as the temperature is easier to control in the final stages. You do not want to go higher than 215-216 degrees, or you will end up with rock candy,” Legge warned. It stays in suspension and will not crystalize if you do not go past the 216-degree temperature.
Bottling the Syrup
Once you have your finished boxelder tree syrup, store it in any used bottle that you can recap. Legge uses Corona bottles as he likes to see the final product. He does not drink but gets them from a friend and then cleans and has them ready. He also has a capping machine, so everything is done on the Legge farm. The capping costs $.04 per bottle.
How much sap do you need to produce 1 gallon of finished boxelder syrup?
The ratio of finished syrup to sap collected is 65:1. Yes, that is a lot of syrup you need to collect and boil, but the finished product is very worth your time. It’s pure, clean, and the flavor fantastic! Legge tapped 45 trees this year, which produced 220 gallons of sap.
How to Clean your equipment
Legge recommends using a small amount of diluted bleach. “Soak your buckets, taps, hoses, and lines, and then use an air compressor to make sure you are getting every inch dry.” Others opt for vinegar. The sap will mold if it gets too warm. During the boiling process, any mold in the sap itself will cookout, but you want to ensure that you thoroughly clean your equipment after each use.
Where to Store Your Syrup
Once bottled, store in a cool dark place. Legge builds wooden boxes to protect the glass bottles and have the ability to stack the syrup. Once opened, store in the refrigerator.
Do you have a new respect for the boxelder trees? I certainly do, and also for the people who collect and make syrup. Legge and his wife are pioneers in a modern world, preserving heritage and skills passed down from generations. Legge so graciously gave me a bottle after the interview, and I plan to savor each deliciously pure drop.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview and adventure in syrup making as much as I have and until next time, stay healthy and free!