Season Extended

By Richard DeVries

The return of the colder weather is a sensitive subject. Therefore I won’t tell you that I am rather excited about it. The Maple syrup season can end in two ways and they both involve warm weather. When it warms up the trees want to leaf out. When the buds are as big as a chipmunk’s ear the sap will turn ‘buddy’ and the season is over. The exact size of a chipmunk’s ear is not scientifically proven but that is what a visitor told me last week. I have been keeping a close eye on the Sugar Maple buds and on the chipmunks and I think we are still good.

Sugar maple buds

Sugar maple buds

The other way the season can end is when the tap hole dries up. People used to think that the tree was closing up the tap hole as part of the healing process. We now know that bacteria like the sugary tree sap and they can seal up the tap hole as they grow. The warmer it is, the faster they grow and the sooner the season is over. It is good practice to keep spiles, storage tanks and equipment clean throughout the season.

Besides the potential of ending the season early, a limited amount of bacteria doesn’t hurt anything. The sap will get cooked for hours and the bacteria will just add to the flavor. It is one of the reasons we get a darker, stronger tasting grade of syrup towards the end of the season. To limit the effects of bacteria we cook down the sap as fast as we can. When I finished the cooking last week I cleaned and scrubbed all the storage tanks, buckets, pumps and pans. So far we evaporated about 1500 gallons of sap and cooked it into 50 gallons of Maple syrup.The colder nights and cooler days this week should give us some nice fresh sap that we can collect in our sparkly clean tanks so it can be cooked down into more delicious syrup.

Snow Trillium

Snow Trillium

I don’t want to sound like a warm weather hater, I usually don’t get grumpy until July or August when the deer flies are out. I have to admit that I enjoyed last weeks weather very much. Spring wild flowers are starting to break through the leaf litter. Snow Trillium, Hepatica, Dutchman’s Breeches, Bloodroot and Trout lily can be found in the wildflower garden. Birds have returned in large numbers. I saw a pair of wood ducks high up in an old Maple tree looking at a cavity for a possible nesting site. My favorites were the Sandhill cranes flying overhead, they look like prehistoric birds, making the weird noise that they make. Chorus frogs can be heard in the ponds and wetlands and I found my first Garter snake.

The Maple Syrup season just got extended and spring is on hold for the rest of the week.
Spring can go fast once it is here so I want to encourage everybody to go outside and enjoy it while you can.

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To everything there is a season…

By Boak Wiesner

“Why do Snowdrops blossom first?” I was asked upon entering the Arb on the most recent warm day. The only answer, really, is that those that didn’t blossom now didn’t survive, that is, evolution has caused some plants to bloom early in the yearly cycle of things, and other plants to bloom last. There’s only so many pollinators like bees to go ‘round, so to spread out their blossoming lets a lot of plants get pollinated. Other plants use the wind, like these Cattails.

DSC_0099To look for relationships between factors and phenomena is scientific thinking. As I walked, I wondered: why is the area along the boardwalk devoid of calling frogs, while the east side of the same wetland has them in abundance? Is the factor the temperature of the water? Its pH? That the east side is closer to woods? If nothing else, some time for quiet thought let me not appear too threatening to a pair of Mallards who must be nesting close by.

DSC_0127Male frogs are calling now to attract mates. Chorus Frogs have rapid, staccato calls while Woodies sound like small ducks quacking. I even heard a Cricket Frog, which sounds like someone hitting the flat of a quarter with another quarter.

Chorus Frogs were the most common animal apparent today, auditorily, at least, but not easily seen. For a long while I sat by the edge of one of the many wetlands that dot the grounds during these days of melting looking through binoculars and didn’t see nary a one. Their cousins the Wood Frogs were also doing their thing. The small “perched” wetland up the hill from Wood Duck Pond was chock full of both species.

DSC_0098A few feathered friends are back. A pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitted around me along the path. I saw a couple of pairs during my stroll.

DSC_0110The major happening this week, nature-wise, is a total lunar eclipse early Tuesday morning. The cold, high pressure that’s moved in will keep the skies clear so visibility should be outstanding. Peak time will be at 2:46 a.m. Bundle up!

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist volunteer.

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And Then There Was Sap

And then the great sap run of 2014 started. For us it was last Wednesday and I hear other sugar bushes around the metro had similar experiences. We had a little bit of sap coming in the past weeks but nothing like last weekend. The weather finally triggered the trees to start pumping and spilling sweet tree sap in the bags and sap tanks.

photo1Wednesday and Thursday were good and even after the snow on Friday we had a good sap run.

The temperatures dropped below freezing again on Friday night and Saturday was the best sap run yet. The open house on Saturday was a great success. We were cooking all day and visitors got to see how we collect sap with tubing, bags and buckets.

IMG_7601We also finished our first Black Walnut syrup, it simmered a little bit too long and finished at 68 % sugar. 66.5 % sugar would have been sufficient to call it syrup. I don’t know if it is the extra sugar but it sure is sweet, and a little nutty. You will have to take my word for it because we did not end up with enough syrup to start handing out samples.

10155896_214306178779920_270785494963009582_nWe did not have a frost on Saturday night and I expected the sap run to slow down. Instead it ran through the night and all day Sunday. I was not planning to work on Sunday but the trees were telling me otherwise. All the storage tanks were full and if I would not start cooking I would start losing sap. Overflowing bags is a good problem to have but it should be avoided when possible.

We cooked all day Sunday and the nice weather brought lots of visitors to the Arboretum Maple Syrup House. We did not prepare for an open house but we won’t turn down a curious visitor. I still talked to the 120th person that came through the door but I must admit that my stories and enthusiasm grew shorter in the late afternoon.

The sap was still running on Monday but it was slowing down considerably. Now we need another frosty night to trigger the trees to start pumping again. How about one more snowstorm for old times sake?

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Making Tracks to Spring

By Greg Lecker

Though Friday’s snowfall might suggest otherwise, spring is coming! Walking from the parking lot to Three Mile Drive, I dodge Canada Geese that find grass newly exposed – again.

Canada Geese return

Canada Geese return

Entering the Maple Sugarbush, I spy a full bag of Maple sap. The trees at the edge of the woodland are warming more quickly than those growing more deeply in the woodland; and sap began running a few weeks ago.

It’s a great day for a walk to appreciate the newly fallen sparkling snow. The drive is completely cleared and dry. And, visitors of all sort – human and animal – are active around the Arboretum. Squirrels are active. Cardinals and Chickadees are calling. In the prairie, a Bald Eagle is perched, then flies off.

Bald Eagles are back!

Bald Eagles are back!

Male Red-Winged Blackbirds are noisily calling their metallic chips in wetlands throughout southern Minnesota.

The sun is rising. Even this early in the day, the sun is probably as high as it was at a December midday. In the Harrison Sculpture Garden, sunlight reflecting off snow provides photographic “fill” light enabling appreciation of the many forms. In the tree collections nearby, shadows of leafless tracery fall on blankets of the frozen crystal form of water that will soon be liquid and capable of optical reflections.

Reflection-like shadows

Reflection-like shadows

The number of visitors is up ten-fold from a December day. Human visitors are identifiable as many go hatless. After I walk half-way around the grounds, my hands have warmed enough to go gloveless, the better to take notes and photographs. Weathering temperatures just 30 degrees, we Minnesotans are a hardy tribe.

Yellow Birch bark shines in the sun. On the trunk and in its shadow, the exfoliating bark is fringe-like.

Yellow Birch

Yellow Birch

Returning back to the inner gardens, I see footsteps leading to the open running waterfall leaving a melting Iris Pond. Human and animal visitors are drawn by different attractions at the Arboretum. Canada Geese are picnicking near the Ordway Shelter – their starry footsteps in the snow betray the bee-line that they made to the sheltered grass now exposed under the deep foliage of the pines there. Spring is likewise making tracks to arrive!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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First Syrup

By Richard DeVries

Wednesday was a good day. The sap was running nicely on the south side of the hill. The sun had warmed up the trees enough by mid morning for the sap to start dripping. We had a nice trickle of sap running into the storage tank from the trees connected to the tubing.

Sap flow

Sap flow

Not the perfect sap run just yet but even the smallest trickle will fill up the tank, eventually. The tubing on the north side was frozen most of the morning. By mid afternoon the sap was coming in nicely, but still not what you would expect from over a hundred trees on a vacuum system.

At noon I started up the evaporator, the big cooker in the sugar house. We had some trouble with the float-box the last time we were cooking. The float-box is a valve that controls the sap level in the pans. As the steam goes out the roof, the float-box automatically lets more sap in to keep a constant level of sap in the pans. I wanted to make sure it was working right before the open house next Saturday. I made some adjustments and fired it up.

Hydrometer and Thermometer

Hydrometer and Thermometer

I kept a close eye on the thermometer and on the sap level in the syrup pan. A little bit of tweaking on the float-box and everything looked good. The thermometer needle was creeping closer to the red mark at 7, telling me we were getting close to syrup. The boiling temperature of syrup is 7 degrees over the boiling temperature of water.

I checked the first syrup with a hydrometer, it was a little thin so I let it cook a little longer. I took a couple more samples till the hydrometer told me that the syrup was the correct density. The sugar in the syrup increases the ‘floatability’ and makes the hydrometer float at the right depth.

A gallon of syrup came trickling out and then the flow of syrup slowed down. The flow of syrup shouldn’t slow down unless I close the valve. After a quick peek in the pan I shut down the system. The sap level was too low and I got really close to burning the first syrup of the season.

2014 on the right

2014 on the right

It was more luck than expertise that saved the day. The first syrup tastes great but the float-box needs some more tweaking.

Join us for demonstrations in tapping trees, cooking syrup and making candy this Saturday April 5 from noon to 4. Try sweet samples of Maple sap and sweeter samples of Maple candy.

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Firsts

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The first bluebirds of the season greet me with their sweetly chortled songs. An unusually warm 63⁰ has brought birds, animals, and a brown-winged fly – first of the season as well – back to life.

Trees are in bud all over the arboretum: river birch sports new red twigs tipped with fresh buds; white oak clusters four or more buds at its tip; and quaking aspen shows sharply pointed buds and large tan leaf scars.

White oak twig

White oak twig

Gretchen of Medina and I chat leisurely, savoring our new ability to relax outdoors without winter’s icy nip rushing us along.

In the woodland, pairs of gray squirrels crash through leaves in games of tag. Lone squirrels busily dig up their underground stashes from last fall. A white breasted nuthatch laughs from within the woods, calling me deeper in.

Maple sap bags

Maple sap bags

Blue lines are strung throughout the forest. They carry sap downhill to large covered vats. Bulging blue bags of maple sap hang from some of the tree trunks.

I watch a graceful great blue heron flap its long wings overhead, my first of the season.
Male red winged blackbirds are busy proclaiming the edges of their territories with tremolo “konklaree” calls as they balance atop dried cattail stalks that sway under their weight. The females will arrive several weeks behind them.

But wait – what is that high-pitched trill? It sounds like the first western chorus frog of 2014! I know that sound well but can scarcely believe I am hearing it.

Fern

Fern

Waters gurgle in the woodland as the creek fills with snowmelt. The green splash of a fern warmed by a mossy rock glows in the white and tan camo-patterned forest floor.

In the Learning Center, families were planting seeds to take home and creating seed art. At the outdoor play area, children balance on logs and hide behind trees as moms rest on wooden swings or sun on benches in the snow.

Snowcrust

Snowcrust

A chipmunk gathers seeds beneath a bird feeder, and a silent mourning dove stands sentinel nearby. The snow crust is littered with bits of leaves, twigs, mast, bark and soot. It forms a collage that will soon melt to nourish the first seedlings to come.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist program is available at http://www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

 

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Maple Events

By Richard DeVries

It is always tricky to pick a date for an event when you have to rely on the weather. We had our Pancake Brunch and Sugarbush tours last Saturday, March 22.

Despite the cold we had close to a thousand people enjoy the pancakes with the Maple Syrup we made last spring. About 300 people visited us at the Sugar House. We kept count by handing out free samples of Maple Candy. We started with 300 pieces and they were all gone by the end of the day, thus we  must have had 300 visitors.

Cold brunch day

Cold brunch day

We collected 200 gallons of sap from the 270 Sugar Maples that have been tapped so far. That was enough to start cooking during the brunch. The cooking seems to be the highlight for many visitors, at least it was warm in the Sugar House.

Black walnut experiment

Black walnut experiment

We also tapped Black Walnut trees this year. We collected 2.5 gallons of sap from five trees. I call it the Black Walnut Experiment because I don’t know much about. The entire process seems to be the same as for Maples. I have read that the syrup should turn out sweet and nutty. We started cooking the sap on a little outside cooker.

The weather forecast looks promising and I hope to collect some more sap so we can cook again on Saturday. We will have to wait and see.

Saturday March 29 is our next open house, hopefully it will be warmer and the sap will be running. We will have tours and demonstrations from noon to 4. This year we are planning some demonstrations on how to make Maple Candy. We’ll try to start a new candy demonstration every hour, at 1, 2 and 3 pm.

We hope you can make it out for the fun!

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