Birch Tapping Across The Universe

 The aim of today's post is to explain the foraging tradition of Birch tapping and why you might want to do it.

Birch Tapping is the process of collecting the rising sap from a Birch tree (Betula).  It can be collected just before the buds break usually over a two week period in mid March.  The process will be explained here and is similar to the process used to tap Maple trees for Maple Syrup production.  

The act of harvesting sap from these deciduous trees has been carried out for millenia and the product has been attributed with many health giving properties in a wide range of cultures from Russia to the United States.  Birch Sap has been used to treat gout, lung disease, kidney stones, jaundice, scurvy and cholera to name but a few.   

As a child, Silver Birch is usually the first tree that one will learn to identify. In a Winter woodland scene, it will punctuate the complex but sparse scene with its striking pillars of white. The woodland to the passing visitor can be a blanket of calm, a complex tangle of trees and branches. The Silver Birch will often stitch the scene together providing punctuation amongst the mossy trunks.

Birch is known as pioneer species (along with my orchard friend the Blackthorn).  It is very quick to grow and spread and can prosper in most soils.  It was one of the first species to move in when the ice caps receded at the end of our last ice age.  Its cycle of life providing improved soils and shelter for the mighty and revered slower growing species of the British woodland.

To collect the sap, you will first need to identify whether the sap has started to rise.  One way of doing this is to observe the tree.  Have the buds started to swell?  If a small incision with a knife is made in the surface of the tree does liquid start to flow?  With experience, you will know the right time to do it.  Most books state that the sap will flow throughout March but it will depend on location and the vagaries of that year's weather.

Once you have decided that the time is right you will need the following equipment

  • 10mm drill 
  • A short run of plastic tubing (also 10mm)
  • A vessel to collect the sap ( I used a demijohn)
  • A sponge (to help seal around the top of the vessel while you are waiting)
First, drill a hole into your chosen tree (your tree needs to be a mature specimen - over 25cm trunk diameter).  Make sure the hole is angled upwards a bit to assist with the flow.  You only need to drill deep enough to access the cambium layer and deep enough so that the tube stays in place. 

Then, insert one end of your tubing (clean and sanitized) into the tree and the other end into your collecting vessel (also clean and sanitized).

Finally, secure everything in place with string and leave for 24 hours.  

Hopefully, in 24 hours you will return to a full demijohn and plenty of liquid for all your scurvy treating needs.

All of the above sounds easy but in practice if you don't get your timing right you can end up like me with a paltry cm of sap and a frustrated blog post which should have had triumphant pictures of me showing off my plentiful sap harvest.  I could have left things set up for a few more days but due to the rapidity of natural fermentation (which can very quickly make the fructose laden liquid acidic)
I decided to accept defeat and I plan to try again in a week or so.  

One important thing to say, is that repeatedly (year on year) tapping the same tree will over expose the tree to disease and possibly risks damaging the tree more than just the small hole in the bark itself.  You should choose a different tree each year.  You can also tap from the end of a severed young branch which also lowers the risk of tree wide damage.

I have plans to turn my sap into wine (if I ever manage to get some) so I will explain that process in the coming weeks. Until then, happy tapping!








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