As our friend the maple tree awakens from his long winter slumber, the time has come to welcome him back to the world -- by tapping him with a spigot and draining his sap.
And, explains Tammy Watychowicz, a naturalist and horticulturalist with the Allegheny County Parks Department, as long as you do it right and don't take more sap than you need, the tree really doesn't mind that much.
"It's a nice sweet treat from nature," says Watychowicz. "It's just important if you're going to do it that you know how to do it right and responsibly."
To that end, every March the county parks department hosts several maple-sugaring events. The first event was held March 6 at North Park, but there are three more opportunities to check it out.
Now is the prime maple-sugaring season. As winter thaws, the trees begin to send the sap they've stored in their roots up to the soon-to-bloom buds. To re-direct some of this sap toward your pancakes, Watychowicz says first you want to pick trees that are 25-30 inches in diameter. Older trees can withstand the process, and supply good product. Drill in, insert the tap and hang a bucket.
Of course, it's not that simple. The park program explains the technique and equipment required -- which you can buy or make -- and counsels about expectations. It can take some time, Watychowicz says, to collect enough sap to cook down into syrup. For example, one gallon of syrup requires 40-50 gallons of sap.
"The sap is 95 to 97 percent water, and it takes a long time to cook that liquid away," explains Watychowicz. "If you were to taste it right out of the bucket, it would taste like a cool drink of slightly sugared water.
"That sugar is what we're after. We cook the liquid off, and during the cooking process, you can make it as thin, thick, dark or light as you want. It's all pure: We don't add a thing and it's delicious."
Maple-sugaring demo: 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Sat., March 13, Round Hill Park, Elizabeth Township (412-835-0153). The Boyce Park Maple Sugaring Festival: 11 a.m.-noon, Sat., March 13, Boyce Park, Plum (pre-registration required at 724-733-4618). Maple-sugar class, 2-4 p.m. Sat., March 20, Harrison Hills Park (724-224-4102).