While today’s weather made my little corner of Victoria feel less than spring-like the indelible signs of the new season are making themselves known throughout the city. The persistent woodpecker outside my window, the freshly popped blossom on the trees and colourful pockets of snowdrops and daffodils in people’s gardens certainly indicate a changing of the seasons.
These springtime signals are clearly visible to anyone who cares to look up (or down) as they walk through Victoria. One of the hidden elements of spring, however runs deep within the trees themselves and comes in the form of tree sap. An elixir of life which flows through the internal workings of all trees, transporting energy to the newly budding flowers and fruits that are starting to reveal themselves after a long dormant winter season.
It may at first appear that this life giving liquid is reserved solely for the benefit of the trees themselves. There are, however, a number of species where the sap can be tapped for our own consumption. The famous Canadian icon that is Maple Syrup is an obvious example of this kind of propagation, but there is a simpler and easier way to access tree sap and benefit from its life giving qualities.
The Birch tree, with its often slender trunk and silver or white papery bark stands out amongst many species found on Vancouver Island and beyond. Its sap can be tapped in the middle two weeks of March (or later if Spring is taking its time to kick in), and is apparently very high in Vitamin C, something we could all use to recover from the illnesses of the winter season.
I had spotted two or three large Birch trees in my local park and had remembered a recipe for Birch sap wine I had read from a foraging and wild foods book called “A Cook on the Wild Side” written by one of my favourite English “celebrity” chefs, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. While I didn’t feel that I had time for the long fermenting and racking processes that come with home made wine, I did want to access some of that vitamin packed liquid, especially as it seemed like such a simple process, with no harm coming to the tree and the benefits to myself.
So, this morning I followed the instructions presented in HFW’s recipe and selected the tree I wanted to tap. After boring a shallow (around 1/2-1″) upwards facing hole about 2ft from the base of the tree I inserted a length of plastic pipe and put the other end in a leftover jug I had used for homemade cider during the summer.
After making sure that the sap was running from the tree I left the bottle to fill for an hour or so. The sap was still running fairly freely when I returned and this short period left with about 1 1/2 cups of Birch sap sitting in the bottom of the jug. This amount suited my needs and so I made sure to plug the hole with a piece of old wine cork and pack it with mud to prevent the tree from bleeding unnecessarily and to stop any infection from getting in.
The sap itself looks quite unremarkable, with a consistency of slightly viscous water and a subtle yellow colouration. The taste is very subtle too, sweet but not too sweet, very refreshing, with a texture that coats the tongue and a subtle fragrant aftertaste.
As I mentioned earlier, my first introduction to Birch sap was through the recipe recounted in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s cook book (available through his website). If I had the time and the space I would no doubt attempt to recreate this very cost effective (and by all accounts very delicious) alcoholic beverage. For the moment I am happy just sampling this strange and refreshing liquid, straight from the tree. Besides, if it is good for the tree and provides all the energy it needs to bedeck it with the lush green foliage and blossom throughout the spring and summer months then I can only hope it imparts some of that goodness onto me.
Let us know if you have any experience with tapping tree sap, of all different kinds, and if you have attempted any of the more complex processing methods to take it beyond its initial liquid state. If you do try this yourself, please respect the tree you are tapping, only take as much as you need and ensure you leave it in as good condition as possible.
Thank you for reading, we look forward to hearing from you.
Photos and article by Gareth Clayton