The sap is running. In the Gaspe peninsula of Quebec, the finest maple syrup comes from the sap of their maple trees. It takes gallons of sap to make a quart of syrup, and the time involved to render the thin, not-so-sweet sap into the thick, incredibly delicious and unique taste experience that is Gaspe maple syrup is monumental. It is largely the reason why the price of true eastern maple syrup is so high. But the sap is running in every tree, across the entire continent, and many of these trees can produces syrup, as well.
The natives of North America have a long history of gathering birch syrup. It is more bitter, but equally of culinary value. Birch is a member of the willow family, of which poplar also is a member. Don’t think there is enough sap in those trees? Just park under a cottonwood or flowering poplar in the spring, and see how much sticky residue falls onto your car! The syrup is there for the taking.
Birch sap has about 1-2% sugar content. Ideally, birch syrup for pancakes, etc. should be about 65%. You can imagine the amount of raw sap that needs to be evaporated: about 100-150 litres for every litre of syrup. And birch or poplar sap runs later, in a shorter window than maple, since the trees generally are found further north.
The sap begins running about two weeks before the leaves emerge. In Canada, for instance, that window of opportunity occurs in mid- to late April, with a normal spring. Maple trees have higher internal pressure than most members of the willow family. Like blood pressure in humans, higher sap pressure means the sap will run more freely when the pressure is higher. Commercial birch sapping employs a vacuum suction technique, but birch and poplar sap still can be harvested using traditional pipe and stem taps.
Unlike maple syrup, birch sap is not limited to use as a syrup. A decent wine can be made from the partially-condensed syrup. Thicker syrup mixes often are blended with Seneca root, spruce buds or Echinacea, for use as cold remedies. Most willows contain salicylate, the primary component of ASA (Aspirin), which is an excellent pain reliever. It is also astringent, anti-bacterial and diuretic, making birch sap-based home remedies a multi-purpose health solution.
While you are collecting sap, scrape a small amount of the inner bark of the poplar or birch, saving it to be chewed when on long hikes. It is also a great anti-inflammatory, and provides a welcome nourishment, instead of gum. They may be the common, low-brow cousins of the famous maple, but birch and poplar are more than fair-weather friends!