A Syrupy Salute to Spring
Last Sunday the annual Sugaring Off celebration, heralding the evasive but long-hoped-for beginning of spring, made its first appearance of the season at The Farmers’ Museum. This event, which runs for four Sundays, offers maple syrup and everything that goes with it to myriad visitors; the village and farm buildings are open for exploration, and the animals are eager for a pat on the head. Sugaring Off Sundays anticipates the April opening of the Farmers’ and Fenimore’s doors and gates for the 2023 season.
The reason for this activity is local maple syrup, provided by the Otsego County Maple Producers. The syrup, boiled down from sap tapped from 30-year-old sugar maples, is an ancient and local phenomenon first produced by Native Americans in the mid-16th century.
Maple trees are among the most popular and abundant trees in the world, with around 128 species dating back to 100 million years ago. They give great shade, their autumn colors are spectacular, they grow in nearly every plant hardiness zone and survive a multitude of conditions. They come in all sizes—a grand sugar, silver or red maple can reach 148 feet with a spread of 40 feet; a tiny ornamental dwarf Japanese maple may grow all the way to three feet. Maple bonsais are smaller. Many maples will live for between 100 and 400 years. The tree is native to Asia and thrives across Europe, North Africa, and North America, where in Canada it is the national tree as well as Toronto’s hockey team; one species grows in the Southern Hemisphere. The tree’s first acknowledgement was in 1260, when it was referred to as the “mapole;” a century later it appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as the “mapul.” Maple trees yield maple syrup; they provide spectacular foliage; their wood is hard, light-colored, and used for furniture, wood products, and paper. The wood type is tonewood, which carries sound well, so maple is used as well for parts of musical instruments. Their charcoal adds to the making of Tennessee whiskey.
Although maple trees need no special attention save a careful clip or two in the spring, there are a number of fungal threats that can alter their regal appearance. Tar spot, caused by a fungus called Rhytisma acerinum, is black, mostly circular spots with yellow margins on maple leaves. Anthracnose causes large, irregular dead areas around the edges of leaves, which then shrivel and fall off, usually months before they should (handy for a diagnosis). Powdery mildew appears mid-summer when it’s hot and humid. It’s a flour-like powder that covers the tree and floats around. Scorch, caused by mid-summer drought and heat stress, can also defoliate.
None of these diseases is especially dangerous; the trees either temporarily defoliate, or their beauty is challenged. To control the fungi, rake up overwintering leaves at the tree’s foot, taking the overwintering fungi with them.
There is one incurable disease: Verticillium wilt. The fungus enters through damaged roots and blocks the water and nutrient passages inside the tree, killing its branches. The disease manifests itself in mid-summer, and the unseasonable appearance of fall colors followed by defoliation are a good sign of its existence. Some trees will die in a few years; others take more time.
Maple trees, usually very healthy, are going to stick around.