Sap Flow

One of the great mysteries of maple syrup is what causes the sap to flow out of the trees

. Following is an explanation of how temperature fluctuations and pressure and suction in the tree cause sap to flow.

Early in the spring, when the maple trees are still dormant, temperatures rise above freezing during the day but drop back below freezing at night. This fluctuation in air temperature is vital to the flow of sap in sugar maple trees.

What causes the sap of maple trees to flow in the spring? During warm periods when temperatures rise above freezing, pressure (also called positive pressure) develops in the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow out of the tree through a wound or tap hole. During cooler periods when temperatures fall below freezing, suction (also called negative pressure) develops, drawing water into the tree through the roots. This replenishes the sap in the tree, allowing it to flow again during the next warm period. Although sap generally flows during the day when temperatures are warm, it has been known to flow at night if temperatures remain above freezing.

Thus, pressure and suction are essential to sap flow. But how do the pressure and suction develop?

Sap flows through a portion of the outer tree trunk called sapwood. Sapwood consists of actively growing cells that conduct water and nutrients (sap) from the roots to the branches of the tree. During the day, activity in the cells of sapwood produces carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is released to the intercellular spaces in the sapwood. In addition, carbon dioxide in sap is released into the spaces between the cells. Both of these sources of carbon dioxide cause pressure to build up in the cells. A third source of pressure is called osmotic pressure, which is caused by the presence of sugar and other substances dissolved in the sap. When the tree is wounded, as when it is tapped by a maple producer, the pressure forces the sap out of the tree.

At night or during other times when temperatures go below freezing, the carbon dioxide cools and therefore contracts. Some of the carbon dioxide also becomes dissolved in the cooled sap. Finally, some of the sap freezes. All three of these factors create suction in the tree. This causes water from the soil to be drawn up into the roots and travel up through the sapwood. When temperatures rise above freezing the next day, sap flow begins again.

Thus, the cycle of warm and cool periods is essential for sap flow. Temperatures too warm or too cool during the short, six-week "sap season" will reduce the amount of sap flow. This will result in lower maple syrup production or a "bad year" for maple producers in the region.

The sap in sugar maple contains a high concentration of sugar compared to the sap of other trees. The sugar in maple sap is the product of photosynthesis that occurred during the previous summer. Carbohydrates produced by photosynthesis are stored in the tree in the form of starch. Starch is converted to sucrose (sugar) and dissolves in sap. Amino acids in the sap give maple syrup its distinctive flavor, which differs from pure sugar.

Many people wonder if tapping the tree and taking away so much of the tree’s sap might harm the tree. In fact, when producers follow tapping guidelines, and tap only healthy trees, no damage to the tree results. It has been estimated that tapping removes only 10% or less of the tree’s sugar, an amount too small to hurt a healthy tree under normal environmental conditions.

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