The City’s wrong to ban tapping Norway Maples for sap

Norway Maple
Creative Commons License photo credit: jnthnhys

The Toronto Star is reporting that a local plan to tap Norway Maples (Acer platanoides) this spring, collect sap and boil it down into maple syrup has hit a snag (no pun intended) with the proposal to tap the Norway Maples found in city parks: Toronto’s urban forestry department believes that tapping is “detrimental” to the trees.

When I first read the story, I was concerned that there had been a misquote and the plan was to tap Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) rather than Norway Maples. I checked in with Laura Reinsborough, fellow graduate from the Faculty of Environmental Studies and project coordinator for Not Far From the Tree (the organization behind this idea) if NFFTT’s plans were to tap Sugar vs. Norway Maples. Not so! NFFTT has a post up that explains the whole program in detail.

For the production of syrup, it looks like they only real difference is the lower percentage of sugar in a Norway Maple’s sap. Typically speaking, it takes 40 litres of Sugar Maple sap to make 1 litre of syrup. Based on their research NFFTT is suggesting they will need to collect 60 litres of Norway Maple sap to get that same 1 litre of syrup. Beyond that, the Norway Maple syrup is supposed to be comparable to Sugar Maple syrup.

While NFFTT has to be polite when dealing with the city, I can be a bit more blunt: I call bullshit on the city’s position. Here’s why. Norway Maples are a non-native species of tree that a preferred for urban planting because they often can deal with the stresses of urban settings better than other species of maples. While urban planting practices are changing, they were often planted as a monoculture: street after street of Norway Maple as the street tree. The problem with the Norway Maple is that individuals are now becoming naturalized (meaning that they are growing from the seeds of planted trees rather than just growing in places where they’ve been planted) in greenspaces throughout Toronto. In turn, they are out-competing native species of trees and quickly replacing a mixed Sugar Maple-American Beech forest that would be the undisturbed normal here in the city of Toronto. Additionally, in comparison with that mixed Maple-Beech forest, Norway Maples shade-out most of the herb layer growing under its canopy. This loss, especially when Norway Maples grow in the ravine system of Toronto, leads to increased erosion. In short, while I dislike dichotomized concepts like native/non-native and invasive/non-invasive, these trees pose a serious ecological problem.

The City of Toronto, to their credit, have recognized the invasive nature of the Norway Maple and publish material describing it as an invasive species [pdf alert] including information on how to control it:

Norway Maple seedlings may be dug out of the ground.  Cut small saplings at the base using hand pruners or loppers. Small to medium sized trunks can be girdled.

But do we get the irony yet? The same department that publishes the brochure suggesting that Norway Maples are invasive and should be dug out of the ground, pruned or girdled is the same department now saying the Norway Maples found on city property cannot be tapped for sap.

The benefits of tapping Norway Maples outweigh the concerns. If tapping occurs using time-tested procedures ensuring that over-tapping does not occur ((Simply, the proper number of taps is based on of the diameter of the tree, never to go beyond four per tree)) then there is little, if anything at risk for the health of the tree. There is, as NFFTT outlines, another benefit from this plan: the possibility of citizens’ engagement, understanding of and experience of our “urban forest”. Given that the City is already working to remove Norway Maples, why shouldn’t we find some benefit instead?

11 replies on “The City’s wrong to ban tapping Norway Maples for sap”

First, it appears as though our interests and professions are well aligned. I live down in Burlington, VT, teach natural history courses at Sterling and UVM, write naturalist-y type articles, lead field walks, am an avid nature photographer, and am particularly interested in connecting people to nature through direct engagement with the land, which is how I found your site. I tapped a Norway maple in my backyard (Acer platanoides) and it tastes pretty bad. I wasn’t expecting much because of the milky latex sap that exudes from the twigs in the summer. I was surprised that the sap was relatively clear, but again it tastes pretty bad. I wanted to see if others had thoughts on palatability and potential hazards of harvesting Norway maple sap and this was one of the first articles that came up. Thanks for pointing me to NFFTT. Have you had experience tapping Norway maples? If so, I’d love to hear what you’ve found. Thanks a bunch, Teage.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting Teage. It certainly sounds like we’ve got aligned interests and I bet we would have lots to chat about.

My own personal experience tapping Norway Maples is nill, but my understanding from NFFTT is that the sap they’ve collected and the syrup rendered has been palatable. I know that budding out renders Maple sap (and syrup) with a strange taste–your experience tapping your Norway Maple wasn’t too close to the end of the season?

I enjoyed your article, and hope Toronto gets smart, because this is a wonderful way to get some benefit from this ‘weed’ tree. I live in Boston, not quite the same climate, and have 2 large Norways in my yard (one is very large, about 80 cm in diameter). 10 years after moving here (and mourning that they were not sugar maples), I read that you can actually tap them, so I tried it this year. I’ve never tapped a maple tree before but it’s not particularly hard to do at a very small scale. The flow was fantastic, 6 – 8 liters per tap on good days, though the season was short (I started very late). But my biggest surprise was the quality — it’s the best syrup I’ve ever had. Light in color, but very intensely flavored though not overpowering, but much more complex than commercial maple syrup. It has some floral notes, and no trace of unpleasantness. I think my trees are on the high side of sugar content, as I seem to be getting around a 50:1 ratio (though it’s possible my finished syrup is not exactly 66-67% sugar, as I don’t have a thermometer really accurate to 0.1 deg).
I have not the expertise to guess why Teage’s sap produced foul syrup, as my experience is limited to two trees, three taps, and one season. Sap stopped running a few days ago, never got ‘buddy’.
Anyway, I’m very pleased, and am a much bigger fan of my maple trees now. Still, they suck all the goodness out of the soil and turn plain yellow in the fall…

Thanks for calling BS on the City. Toronto’s ravines are under severe threat from Norway and Manitoba Maples (as well as other invasives such as Japanese knotweed), both of which are ‘listed’ as invasive species. However, under the city’s ‘urban canopy’ initiatives both species are seen as being *more* valuable than native trees due to their fast growth rate and extensive leaf canopy, and as a consequence are protected as much or more than native trees.

I went on one of the city Tree Tours where the facilitator picked two trees to praise at length for their extensive canopy, and then mused at length about reporting the respective property owners to the City to be fined due to lack of adequate protection for said trees – to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. The trees this ‘tree expert’ was praising and felt entitled to threaten the owners over? One was a Manitoba Maple, and the other was a Norway Maple. When it was pointed out that both are considered invasives and a threat to native ecosystems (a point which he neglected to mention) he countered by saying that there were no ravines nearby (not true) and that even if there were the carbon sink effect was of far more importance.

A read of the City of Toronto Ravine bylaws clearly illustrates that invasive trees are given equal protection to native trees. There are no provisions or programs for ravine restoration, nor any definition of a healthy ecosystem. There is no mention of, let alone protection for, woodland wildlife, birds, insects, etc… It is prohibitively expensive, and a beaurocratic nightmare, to undertake ravine maintenance, with threats of severe fines for almost any activity (up to $100,000 to injure any tree of any size *including Norway and Manitolba Maples*, or to put in any type of steps in order to access the property to conduct maintenance). There is NO ASSISTANCE OF ANY KIND available to owners of ravine properties to restore their ravines – including LEAF who won’t set foot on a designated ravine property. As a result the owners don’t touch them and they are in precipitous decline. However, a recent decision by the City to support a largescale development which almost completely destroys the ravine on the propsed site (6 story condo) was in part allowed “under the justification that it’s been largely neglected anyway”.

As an inveterate tree hugger, I’m led to the sad and frightening thought that the best thing for our ravines and native ecosystems just might be Rob Ford getting out his red pen and pruning the City’s Urban Forestry and Parks departments and Greening initiatives. At this point in time, it appears the only people being deterred and disempowered by the City’s Ravine legislation as it currently exists are the people who are trying to save them.

Oh, one more thing. Your statement “Given that the City is already working to remove Norway Maples” isn’t true. It would be nice if it were, but sadly it isn’t.

I’ve yet to find a single example of the City in general, and Urban Forestry in particular, doing anything but protecting Norway Maples. Unless, that is, a city department or developer (willing to shell out the requisite ‘fine’) wants to raze every living thing thats in the way of their project. But even then, the City doesn’t differentiate between species: all are accorded equal “value”.

Gavan, I apologize in advance for my rant below. And for my rants above. I hope my getting this off my chest will also inspire (?!?) discussion amongst ecology professionals (and hopefully your students), and get a dialogue started somewhere, by someone.

Sadly, you’re the only professional I’ve seen anywhere who’s had the integrity to call BS on the City’s behaviour. And I do apologize for taking advantage of that. But you seem to be the only one who is willing to stand up and say what’s what.

Below is a cautionary tale of what we may be about to encounter in Southern & Central Ontario if we don’t stop coddling invasives (unless we’re already there but no-one is talking about it): It’s one thing to let our natural ecosystems die due to neglect. It’s another thing entirely to promote their demise by protecting species that are killing them. It seems like twisted illogical thinking to me. Or could it be, perhaps, just rent-seeking by those who would profit from being on the clean-up crew?

“7 out of 10 Seattle forest trees will be dead within 20 years”

Report: Tree canopy declining in Seattle’s parks and forests

Report by Mark Mead – Sr. Urban Forester Seattle WA
City forests are failing as trees reach the end of their natural life and invasive plants choke out the next generation of trees. Over 40% of the forest is heavily infested with English ivy, Himalayan blackberry and other invasive plants. Without a massive, coordinated community effort, seven out of ten trees in these natural areas will be dead within twenty years.

Perhaps we’re already there. From a York University study:
The Value of the Keele Campus Urban Forest
Top 3 tree species by number of individuals European buckthorn, Box elder, Ironwood […]
Whereas the most valuable species in the Building series were: Rhamnus cathartica (European buckthorn) (US$ 8,937,579) […]
This introduced species (Rhamnus cathartica, European buckthorn) has invaded
York’s unmanaged woodlots and had the greatest leaf area of all species sampled. The large number of European buckthorn trees and shrubs on the campus is problematic. On the one hand they contribute to carbon sequestration and pollution mitigation, while on the other hand, they may be suppressing the regeneration of native trees and shrubs in the woodlots (Myers and Bazely, 2003).

What is Seattle doing about it?
Fortunately, something can be done to reverse this trend, and it has begun. To date, 28 volunteers have been trained for urban reforestation. They will lead teams of volunteers to begin the process of reclaiming our urban forests.

So what are our Ontario Cities, Municipalities, Urban Forestry professionals, Universities, etc… doing about it? Other than putting them (Manitoba and Norway Maples, European Buckthorn) on an invasive species list on paper, but protecting them both in practice and by legislation, of course?

So, my apologies for another long vent here, on a post about tapping trees. I’m just a Financial Services person – botany and ecology isn’t really my thing. So perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. If I have it all wrong, I’d love to know why I have it wrong, and what the science says. But so far, as a Financial Services person, I’m seeing financial arguments that don’t appear to hold up used in defence of protecting (and false valuation) of invasives. Would love to hear some discussion about it from the ecology/botany folks. Other than promises of massive fines for hurting trees from the Urban Forestry folks, that is, which is really less of a discussion, and more of a threat. Wonderful way to ‘protect’ the environment AND make sure you get to keep your job because no-one else is allowed to.

Seems that norway maples seeds are a little tricky to germinate=1st try this past year=But will attempt again this coming year by letting them take natures course in the yard.

I have been on the hunt again this year for sweeter sap from maple trees and this year i have found 4 different Norway maples that have tested no lower then 4% sap sugar content (SSC) all sap season long and 1 tree in perticular started out at 5.5% sap and ended closing out the season on 4.6% sap was the last time i tested it.

It’s (2) neighbor trees which are norways started at like 4.6% and 4.5% and they ended just above 4%. I do have about 10,000 seeds i collected directly off the 5.5% and about 6,00 from underneath it=could be wind swept mixed from the neighbor on each side?

But there are sweet ones out there and if you could get a refractometer and test them for SSC you’d be amazed that they may not test lower then 2%.

Do a search on Youtube for World’s sweetest maple tree and you will see me testing trees for SSC.

Good Luck,

Funny (but not surprising) to see Teage here! Anyway I found this site because I just tasted a ‘sap sickle’ from a norway maple tree (when the sap first starts running early in the season and it is still quite cold the broken twigs create icicles. They taste sweeter/stronger than just the sap so the freezing must concentrate the sugar). Anyway, I was wondering if you ever tried this and if the sap tasted better than that Teage and I tried (the buds definitely aren’t swelling, the sap just started running).

Incidentally, i’ve also tried box elder sapsicles and they taste worse than the norway maple. I’ve had red maple sap and it wasn’t bad.

Norway Maple is somewhat invasive in Vermont, mostly near urban areas. It was worse in Pittsburgh, where there is also a heavy deer overpopulation problem. I wonder if the white latex that forms in the leaves is distasteful to deer as well.

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