“Like to go tap a Birch tree?” he muttered.
Of all invitations I was expecting to come my way this was quite low on my list, number three at least. As it turned out tapping a Birch tree did not mean asking a large plant for a loan of some money and as I was doing nothing else I decided to tag along.
Birch sap is supposedly a very nutritious, slightly sweet fluid full of vitamins and minerals. It sounded to me like the hippy substitute for Coca Cola only much better for you. And free. It is drunk as a tonic and in Russia is used as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and anti-parisitic treatment. It can be used to make syrup rather like maple syrup.
It only remains fresh for a couple of days. A small Birch tree can produce up to 5 litres of sap a day though an individual tree should only be tapped once every few years. Tapping is done in Spring before the buds develop and done properly it does not harm the tree.
Our tapping experiment took place in pretty Newtown Woods above the jumbled stony notch of Newtown Cove where swimmers yell and dive and the black paws of the cliffs batter the foaming sea beneath the Metal Man. We wound our way up the muddy path where Alan located a Birch tree. With him he had a twig, a knife and a muslin covered jar and Tonnta the dog.
To tap a Birch you make a hole in the trunk that will snugly hold a thin plastic tube or a pre-cut birch twig split down the middle which directs the sap to drip into container hung on a branch above the cut or strapped to the tree.
I was amazed to see the sap practically pouring out of the tree at the first incision and soaking the moss-covered bark. It was as if Alan had stabbed it in an artery. It took about ten minutes to fit and re-fit the twig. In the event Alan to cut a groove down the centre of the twig the better to direct the flow. The jar was hung and left overnight.
In the fork of the trunk I spotted some fungus which Alan told me it was Birch Polypore or Razor Strop fungus specific to the Birch tree and amazingly that it could be used for sharpening knives.
Unfortunately the jar did not fill up as the twig had not been inserted deeply or snugly enough and there was only a small bit of liquid in the jar the next morning. We both thought at the time a drill would have been a better idea as it would have allowed the twig to be inserted around the optimum two inches but we were happy with the experiment.
My only doubt about drinking the sap, a hopefully needless one, was that the woods like much of our countryside seemed to be scattered with a lot of dog faeces, some of which Tonnta had rolled in and some of which I stepped in. One can only wonder how it gets processed by a tree that draws its nutrition from the earth and hope that come the apocalypse the guilty dog owners are the ones that are felled from some terrible faecal disease…