Monday, March 22, 2010

Bronwyn Chester writes about maple trees, l'érablière urbaine and Mario Bonenfant

"Island of Trees: Sap and the City, Silver Maple's Available"
from Bronwyn Chester's blog and Gazette column sunday, March 21st, 2010

Maple, growing in the ground, who’s the sweetest to be found?

The signs of spring abound on the island: the suddenly dry air, the deepening blue of sky and heat of sun, the added hours to the day, and the return of the sounds of birds and water. All elements of spring are there, all but the olfactory. Sometimes, walking in my east-of-the-mountain neighbourhood, or on the mountain itself, I’m convinced I smell maple sap, the first perfume of spring, but, then again, my brain may be playing tricks on me by completing, on its own, the sensorial portrait.

Or, maybe not. Perhaps I’m smelling the airborne droplets of maple sap evaporating from the numerous species of sweet-sapped maples in the city.

The lucky Montrealers, living near Parc Beaudet in the borough of St-Laurent, will not experience such olfactory incertitude because bona fide maple vapour is, truly, in the air, thanks to maple fairy, Mario Bonenfant. A filmmaker and stay-at-home father of three, Mario Bonenfant was up all night last Tuesday, drilling holes into 22 of the park’s numerous silver maples. By dawn, when the morning show television cameras arrived to film the unusual urban scene, the sun-warmed trees had begun to yield their sap, plunk, plunk.

By noon, there was enough sap in the bottom of the pails for students in the classe d’acceuil (new Canadians) from École sécondaire St-Laurent to empty into the propane-fired evaporator. The sight of them running to rows of silver maples crossing this rectangular park was a delight. And, you can imagine the delight of the students, all recent arrivals from Mexico, India and Afghanistan, to partake in the miraculous production of sugar from trees.

Bonenfant, who began the Érablière urbaine six years ago, shows the teens how to drill the hole and check the sweetness of the sap with a device called a refractometer, which, when you look through it, indicates the percentage of sugar. Sugar maples register between four and five. These silver maples, however, register around two.

Contrary to popular belief, sugar maples are not the only maples with sap sweet enough to warrant making into syrup, sugar, butter, etc. The black maple, also a native to the Laurentian forest, is the sweetest but, given that it’s a loner, the sugar maple, which likes to grow with its own kind, is far more economical.

In the city, however, where sugar maples aren’t all that common - and where the nature park people don’t tap the ones growing on such sites as Mount Royal, Ile Ste-Hélène or Angrignon Park, for fear of crowds trampling the fragile understory plants - silver maples are a viable alternative. This shaggy-barked titan that predominates in most of the island’s urban parks and on many of its streets, takes its name from the pale green underside of its deeply lobed leaf. When the wind blows, the tree appears to change colour from green to silver.

Why is the silver maple such a common urban tree? It’s beautiful, fast growing, tolerates salt and compacted soil, and – in the days before nurseries – was easily transplanted from the banks and floodplains of the island’s rivers. The silver maples’ drooping fronds give it an aspect resembling the once common American elm, and, in large measure, this softwood maple has replaced the elm both in cities and in the trees’ shared natural habitat.
Today, we plant the silver maple for its ornamental value. Prior to the mid 19th century, however, when “sucre du pays” (as sugar from maples was known) was cheaper than the imported cane sugar, silver, black, red and Manitoba maples, as well as sugar maples, were all tapped for their sap. Some, like the 18th century French botanist, François Michaux, found the sugar of the silver and the red maples, superior to the sugar maple. Perhaps, the First Nations peoples and early Europeans knew their saps the way some of us now know our wines.

Les promenades dans la forêt Montréal

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