AP NEWS

Earth Matters Awakening from the great dormancy

March 29, 2019

The sap running in sugar maples in Connecticut is turning buddy, with a yellow tinge and a bitter note to its sweetness.

“The chemistry changes,” said Bill Hill of Warrup’s Farm in Redding.

“It has a very fruity taste,” said Mark Mankin, director of the New Milford Youth Agency, which runs a sugar house at Sullivan Farm in New Milford.

And along with its sour taste, it takes a lot more work to make buddy sap into syrup.

“Instead of running 40 to 1, it’s running 200 to 1,” said Mark Harran, president of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut, of the sugar content in this late-running sap.

And there’s the changing world outside the sugar house.

“The buds begin to swell and you start hearing woodcock and peepers,” Hill of Warrup’s Farm said.

And there’s the rise in temperature. Sugar maples pump their sap up through the trunk and branches when the days are in the 40 degree F. range and the night, in the 20s. Get a sustained warm streak, and the tree has other things to do than pump sap into old metal buckets and plastic tubes. The brief sugaring season — a month to six weeks — is ending.

Hill is still making syrup at Warrup’s Farm, but he admits there’s not much time left; Mankin said the Youth Agency is getting ready to shut down the process for the season. To the far north, in Vermont, the steam will still be rising from the sugar shacks for a couple more weeks. In southern New England, it’s pretty much done.

But it’s useful to remember those lines of tubing, those taps and buckets, are proof that even in February things are stirring in the woods.

The scale of the change is enormous. While humans are still snowed in — physically and psychologically — the woods are shaking off their winter torpor and coming back to life. More light, warmer temperatures, flowing sap and the brown-gray hills will soon be red and green and gold.

“A lot is happening in all woody plants,” said Thomas Philbrick, professor of biology at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.

Think back to the fall. Trees shed their leaves, stop the process of photosynthesis and become dormant. The ground freezes and sap stops running.

“It’s a physiological drought,” Philbrick said. “Trees are getting rid of all those leaves.”

But before they shut down, they produce next year’s buds and new leaves.

“When they’re dormant, the buds are already made,” Philbrick said.

The trees stay asleep until the seasons begin to change. February may still seem like winter to us, but there is much more daylight and generally, warmer temperatures than there were in midwinter.

“I used to think only daylight was responsible,” Philbrick said. “I admit I’ve changed my mind on this. Climate change is making our trees bloom earlier, so temperature must be playing a part.”

Harran of the Maple Sugar Producers Association said his members have noticed the same thing with sugar maples.

“The season used to start in February,” he said. “This year it started in January.”

Philbrick acknowledges he does not know what sensors trees have to mark their changes and come alive again. But they do.

The sap that humans tap to make maple syrup is created by water and the starches the tree has stored up from the year before.

It gets pumped up through the tree to feed those buds and new leaves, waiting since the autumn for nourishment. The buds will swell and all of a sudden there are colors in the landscape.

Those buds, as anyone with spring allergies can attest to, then open up and become flowers shedding copious amounts of pollen. New leaves catch the wind and their swaying helps spread that pollen out into the world.

By this time, the sap that once rushed to feed the buds is working to get the entire tree ready to leaf off. Then, the process of photosynthesis — using sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to make sugars to feed the plant — takes over for the spring and summer seasons.

Philbrick said all of a tree’s structure — its heavy trunk, its branches, its leaves, its buds and flowers and pollen, its dormancy and spring rebirth — have evolved and exist for one purpose: to produce seedlings that may someday grow up to be trees.

“It’s reproduction,” he said. “From an evolutionary standpoint, there’s nothing else.”

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com