Monday, February 16, 2015

Tapping Trees: a Sappy Story

Anthropologist and writer, K. Kris Hirst posed a question on the process of tapping maple trees, who invented it first? Northern Europeans or Native Americans? An interesting chicken or egg dilemma.

K. Kris Hirst, who writes for, posted a story on the process of "Maple sugaring—obtaining sugar and syrup from maple trees—primarly a North American phenomenon. Although maple trees (species Acer) are found throughout the world, only North America has sugar-producing species (especially sugar maple Acer saccharum and black maple Acer nigrum), combined with the right mix of cool nights and warm days that generate enough sap to make sugaring worthwhile."

I love Kris's posts, they get me all Wiki-fingered, thinking parallel thoughts. I leave a small comment. Then another, and so on. Soon, I have enough material for a blog. Lovely story. Especially the chicken or egg dilemma part. Who invented tree-tapping first? Europeans or Native Americans? Especially when there's no archaeological evidence to prove or disprove it?

Another reader, Bill W. commented on Kris's Facebook post: "Last year I had an interesting—and surprisingly lively—debate about whether some of the objects labeled "dugout canoes" are actually maple sugaring troughs. There are historical accounts in Iowa of settlers reusing old Indian wooden sugaring troughs as hog troughs."

My mind had already run off with the idea of maple sugar-cured ham and eggs for brekkie. The idea was beginning to tap-dance itself into a bad Abbot and Costello archaeological joke with a sweet punchline. Why did the yellow-bellied sapsucker cross the road? Turns out it may be an even sappier story involving sap-swigging squirrels.
"Legend has it that, during a spring of famine, an Aboriginal was watching a squirrel bursting with energy. After noticing that the squirrel drank water from a maple tree, he realized that this was where the squirrel was getting its energy from. Maple water became a food prized by the people of the First Nations and later of New France.” —
I'll leave you to visit Kris's page and read up on traditional maple sap collecting practices. But come back, OK?

However, squirrels aside, I envisioned another solution. It's possible that Northern Europeans and Native Americans both independently came up with the process of tapping and reducing down tree sap. Convergent evolution, if you will. The Natives may have taught some European settlers how to tap maple trees, but the concept of tapping trees for sap was already a long-standing tradition in Russia and other boreal regions, as well as in Eastern North America.

Indigenous maples do grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere, but the sweetest sugarbush stands grow in North America. Three maple species are tapped: sugar maple (Acer saccharum)black maple (A. nigrum), and the red maple (A. rubrum). You can tap other maple trees, but they're more stingy with their sugar content.

But there other other deciduous trees in the forest you can tap for sweet sap. Not just those three maples. For example, Sycamore (OK so false and true sycamores are related to maples—Acer; somebody was trying to cop a Biblical feel by naming those trees sycamores, but those Biblical plane trees (ficus/mulberry) are not our sycamores). Somebody posted that sycamore syrup tastes vile. They didn't mention if they were swigging Biblical sycamore sap or Acer sap.

And you can tap the equally related box elder (Acer negundo) AKA the ash-leaf maple. But there's also birch, lime/linden (Tilia), walnut, and even beech and oak trees that have been tapped for sap. (Palm trees too may be tapped for sap, they may be Biblical, but they're not exactly a northern tree…)

Now Birch is classified as a Rosid, as are most of our food sources. The birch family, Betulaceae, includes some 130 species of aldershazelshornbeamsbirches, and is closely related to the beech/oak family.

Finnish birch trees
When tracking down sources and ideas, I tend to lean toward folk customs, and oral tradition for clues. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, a particular tradition has survived into the modern era. In the case of Northern European tree-tapping, it seems to be true. Only with birch trees, not maple trees.

There is a related old Russian / Ukrainian folk custom, to tap birch trees at the break of winter to spring, boiling the syrup down to make an alcoholic berezovyi or birch beer (considered to be a spring tonic). 

I can't believe I still remember the word (I always think I don't know any Russian—until the words arise unbidden from memory). I was in the USSR collecting and translating poetry from 1989 to 1991. My Ukrainian translator, Oleg Atbashian was very emphatic explaining that berezovyi was a very special spring beer made from the sweet sap. And that old peasants drank it. (Russian: byeryozovyi).

So I Googled it, I found that birch beer is also made in North America, flavored with sap, or a twig oil distillation, but it's also made with added sugar. Coals to Newcastle. Not exactly authentic. I needed a paleo-source, not these modern shortcuts, using raisins and lemons and sugar to make a carbonated soft drink flavored with bottled birch oil.

Besides, most New Englanders erroneously assume that birch beer was invented in America ca. 1800. Well, that just didn't sit right—especially when I began to uncover posts from homesick ex-pat Russians trying to locate a source of the authentic ancient brew. (Hint: it predates root beer, it's made with sap, not roots, or twigs.)

My understanding of Russian birch beer was that only the natural sugars in the birch sap were used (and fermented). Apparently birch sap runs a month later than maple tree sap, and is more copious (but has less sugar content). The reduced birch sap is dark and molasses-like, sweet, slightly tart, maple flavored with vanillin with wintergreen/piney overtones. But it has a shorter shelf life.

During the regime of the USSR, sugar was not readily available, and it was a hot black market commodity. Probably why Russians have a mad sweet tooth today, they add jam and sugar to their tea, so sweet, that your cavities will positively beg for fillings. Birch trees are ubiquitous in Russia. Gather birch sap at the dacha, equals a free sugar fix.

Googling along, singing a song, I found a British birch beer recipe dating from 1676 that must've found its way to North America. John Worlidge was the go-to man for cider-making and his Vinetum Britannicum was the brewer's Bible, a 17th c. Amazon bestseller for at least a quarter of a century. The colonists had a prodigious thirst, and knew about fermenting the blood of several trees, and birch trees were the best (and the cheapest). Since the Middle Ages, laborers were routinely paid two gallons of cider (or birch beer/wine) a day.

(Note that Worlidge added refined sugar, which would've been a luxury item from the West Indies.)
"To every Gallon whereof, add a pound of refined Sugar, and boyl it about a quarter or half an hour; then set it to cool, and add a very little Yest to it, and it will ferment, and thereby purge itself from that little dross the Liquor and Sugar can yield: then put it in a Barrel, and add thereto a small proportion of Cinnamon and Mace bruised, about half an ounce of both to ten Gallons; then stop it very close, and about a month after bottle it; and in a few days you will have a most delicate brisk Wine of a flavor like unto Rhenish. Its Spirits are so volatile, that they are apt to break the Bottles, unless placed in a Refrigeratory, and when poured out, it gives a white head in the Glass. This Liquor is not of long duration, unless preserved very cool. Ale brewed of this Juice or Sap, is esteem'd very wholesome."  From Vinetum Britannicum, p. 176, London, 1676. (Free Google Book download.)—Wiki
The sugar addition to the recipe bothered me. Why add sugar to a sap already ladened with natural sugar? Sounds like a shortcut to an older tradition. I did look up the book and found that honey was also used. I've included a facsimile of the text as it's tho charming. And after you read it, I'm pretty thure you'll be lithping  ath well. Yeth.

The book provides my terminus anti quem. We do know that forest trees were being tapped for sap by the British as early as 1676, and probably since the Middle Ages. It took Worlidge several years to ready his manuscript for the printer, then it had to be hand-letter-set. Safe bet to say it was written ca. 1670. Jamestown was settled in 1607. Quebec 1608.  There is no mention of tapping North American trees for sap, Asian, African and Northern European trees, yes. From the 1620s on, there were Indian raids and wars, safe to say, there wasn't a lot of sharing. The English civil war from 1640 to 1659 meant England was a bit distracted. The French and the Dutch patrolling, more wars. Not a pretty time.

A fortuitous accident more fruitful (sapful?) was to search the internet for birch sap, or syrup. I found that "Making birch syrup is more difficult than making maple syrup, requiring about 100-150 liters of sap to produce one liter of syrup"    —Wiki
In the Ukraine and parts of Russia the sap is collected and sold as a type of mineral water, so they clearly value it. A fantastic, easy to make and reliable white wine can be made with a very distinct and pleasant taste, as well as beer, vinegar and a rich caramel and molasses-like syrup.... The sap then, which is actually about 95% + water, minerals and a little sugar, can be evapourated off to make a sublimely delicious syrup.—Fergus the Forager
Then searching under "birch sap," I hit paydirt:
"Birch sap is collected only at the break of winter and spring when the sap moves intensively. Birch sap was a traditional beverage in Russia (берёзовый сок / byeryozovyi sok), Latvia (bērzu sula), Estonia (kasemahl), Finland (koivun mahla), Lithuania (Beržų Sula), Belarus (Бярозавы сок / biarozavy sok, Byarozavik), Poland (Sok z Brzozy), Ukraine (Березовий сік / berezovyi sik), France, Scotland and elsewhere in Northern Europe, as well as parts of Northern China. Heterosides present in birch sap release methyl salicylate by enzymatic hydrolysis which is analgesic, anti-inflammatory and diuretic."   —Wiki
Then I Googled "birch juice" and garnered even more payola. For centuries, birch sap has been a staple in Russia, Scandinavia, Northern Europe, and Northern China (must be that Russian influence). Described as divine nectar:
Beryozovy Sok (birch juice) is the sap from a birch tree. It is a water-like sweet liquid. It’s the only kind of juice in Russia that is venerated in songs about the love of the Motherland. The ancient Slavs worshipped various Pagan gods. And birch was one of the most sacred trees. At that time it was forbidden to take the juice out of the tree for regular use – it was to be saved for rituals. But after the introduction of Christianity the ban gradually disappeared. And people started to collect birch nectar for everyday needs.  —Russiapedia
(Apparently Chernobyl led to the downfall of large scale birch sap collecting). But it's making a comeback among bodybuilders and athletes. Besides, most of them are already on steroids, so what's a little radiation, besides the glow-in-the-dark teeth bonus? Forget about hydrating with coconut water. Birch sap and maple sap, or rather, xylitol, is the tastier and new improved Gatorade and mineral-rich detoxicant. 

Sok means juice, or sap in Slavic languages. And dang if birch sap isn't just loaded with an aspirin related derivative, methyl salicylate, AKA wintergreen oil.  And birch sap, a diuretic, is a veritable wunder-drug, reputed to restore virility, cure baldness, rheumatism, prevent scurvy, and get rid of freckles (must be an anti-redhead thing). Health tonic indeed, and since the Russians are mad for fermenting all manner of things, birch beer is a natural. I guess there's no hangover. A nice spring ritual. LOL!

And if that doesn't float your boat, you can always buy hangoverless vodka made from birch tree sap, it’s called ‘brzozowka’ in the Ukraine.

In Old Slavonic, a cultural poem is embedded in the names of months: the Latinate Апрель (April) was called берёзозол, from берёза (birch tree) and зол—the month of greening birches. Any gardner worth their salt knows not to prune trees when the spring sap runs, or a fruit tree can bleed to death. Birch juice, collected during the first thaw, when the sap flows, is called the "crying of a birch."

The other weird Russian custom I encountered while in the Ukraine one winter, is birching. You wet your birch switch, or broom (ве́ник), and then flagellate yourself (or a lover) all over while in the (ба́ня) banya. Never personally witnessed it. A birch broom switch was thought to have magical powers, a sweet love potion. Does that make the banya the equivalent of a sugar shack? But it's an interesting aside. Think of it, a wintergreen-like substance is in the bark. Sort of like tiger balm on a stick, with a laced beer chaser, anyone? Sounds like a good spring tonic plan. Elixir of the gods.

And of course, birch is associated with the goddess Brigid in Ireland, and in Siberia, it's considered to be the world tree. The Latin name, betula is from the Gaulish betua; birchm in Old Irish: bethe, is the second letter in the alphabet of trees. Birch bark, the Northern Hemisphere's first paper, the wood, also used for writing. Famine food, and a hangover-free beer, as well. 

A child's IOU birchbark drawing from Novgorod ca. 1240-60AD:
     надо    митрѣво     зѧти     доложзи       кѣ

See also:

Russian Birch Tree Juice (English Russia)

Plant Profile: Birch (Betula ssp.)

Taste Test: Birch Beer (An East Coast phenomenon). 

Alaska Wild Harvest produces Kahiltna Gold Birch Syrup.

Fergus the Forager

Forget coconut water... birch sap is what clean-living Londoners are drinking in 2015

Tree Sap: Nature’s Energy Drink

Maple Water The story according to "Legend has it that, during a spring of famine, an Aboriginal was watching a squirrel bursting with energy. After noticing that the squirrel drank water from a maple tree, he realized that this was where the squirrel was getting its energy from. Maple water became a food prized by the people of the First Nations and later of New France.”
Betula alba (white birch), 
Betula pendula (silver birch), 
Betula fontinalis.

The common name birch comes from Old English birce, bierce, from Proto-Germanic *berk-jōn (cf. German Birke, West Frisian bjirk), an adjectival formation from *berkōn (cf. Dutch berk, Low German Bark, Norwegian bjørk), itself from the Proto-Indo-European root *bʰerHǵ- ~ bʰrHǵ-, which also gave Lithuanian béržas, Russian beréza, Ukrainian beréza, Albanian bredh ‘fir’, Ossetian bærz(æ), Sanskrit bhurja, Polish brzoza, Latin fraxinus ‘ash (tree)’. This root is presumably derived from *bʰreh₁ǵ- ‘to shine’, in reference to the birch's white bark. The Proto-Germanic rune berkanan is named after the birch. The generic name betula is from Latin, which is a diminutive borrowed from Gaulish betua (cf. Old Irish bethe, Welsh bedw). Birch holds great historical significance in the culture of North India. Birch paper (Sanskrit: भुर्ज पत्र, bhurja patra) is exceptionally durable and was the material used for many ancient Indian texts. They are also associated with the Tír na nÓg, the land of the dead and the Sidhe, in Gaelic folklore, and as such frequently appear in Scottish, Irish, and English folksongs and ballads in association with death, or fairies, or returning from the grave.  —Wiki

At Russian banya there are special bath brooms (ве́ник) that are used. These brooms or venik sare bundles of twigs and leafy branches bound together from some kind of tree—usually they are from birch or oak trees. The veniks are dipped into cold water and then smacked briskly all over the body. There is a special person who is responsible for this, called banschik(ба́нщик). But usually people don't need banschik's help because groups of friends typically go together and are able to smack each other with veniks.
В ба́не ве́ник доро́же де́нег.
A bath-broom in the banya is worth more than money.  —Russian Banya

Whitsunday: Young birch is the traditional tree of the holiday and a symbol of life. Churches, houses, gates and wells were decorated with birch branches. After the holiday, birch branches were either placed in rivers or spread out on fields, symbolizing long life. In some other places birches were not chopped. Early in the morning on Whitsunday young girls decorated the birches with scarves and ribbons. Then they would sing and dance in a ring around the birch. Also on Whitsunday every girl twined a wreath of birch branches with flowers and grasses and wore it around her head. In the evening the wreaths were thrown in the water. The girl would marry on the side of the river, where the wreath landed. 
A wedding broom made of birch branches and decorated with ribbons was a symbol of beauty.  —Russian Culture

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