The sugar maple tree was officially named Wisconsin’s state tree 70 years ago, even though the idea was discussed as early as 1893.
While there were other tree considerations, the stately oak, white pine and American elm, the school children’s vote prevailed for Acer saccharum, a hard maple.
Few trees challenge the maple as a harbinger of spring. Maple sap begins flowing, sometimes as early as Valentine’s Day. Squirrels, birds and even white-tailed deer come to lick the leaking juices or snap at morning sapcicles. A number of animals, including gray and fox squirrels, feed on the expanding flower buds since nuts are scarce and snow can sometimes be knee deep.
Even without leaves, sugar, silver, red, box elder and hybrid maples provide easy identification as well as sweet spring treats. Yes, box elders are a type of maple, compound leafed, and they do yield sap.
An interesting way to test the flavor of what the syrup might give back is to suck on an icicle from the tree after a freezing night.
Gray squirrels, somewhat lesser than fox squirrels, win possession of best licking posts, which they fight for. Black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches simulate other birds who will steal from yellow-bellied sapsuckers when the woodpeckers arrive with their own drilling tool.
Deer must have found the maples particularly attractive this year after decimating the cedars, cypresses, pines and firs for the first time in many years. Autumn fencing is best but usually not necessary. Hanging sheets around some of the shrubs does help when the snow is too deep to fence, or the roll of fencing is frozen in winter’s hold.
Now grass, alfalfa stems, and other leftover vegetation interests these ruminants more than sugary fluid.
Deer are more content now that ground vegetation is accessible. Great green gobs are being ground between cheek and gum as food is brought up from the rumen causing evident cheek bulges, even on dozing deer.
People have scrambled to the sugar bush, too, carrying pails, drills, tubing and hammers to collect their own sap for kitchen syrup production. Many go beyond a few quarts of syrup and carry their spring harvest off to farmers’ markets.
Starter kits are available from several farm stores across the state.
Sugar maple wood gives reasonably good heat to boil the sap, so a dead tree can be used to the very end.
Another interesting use of these tree boles, especially those from trees that have received multiple taps in their lifetime.
Stool seats cut from the maple logs have telltale marks, scars and discolorations of tap placements. If planned over the years, these scars could make noteworthy hours on a clock, similar to branch knots cut from white and red pine logs.
One can criticize some of Wisconsin’s state symbols for being not particularly worthy, but the sugar maple, our state tree, is not one of those to disparage.
Jerry Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.