Spring Tarries…but the Sap is Rising!

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Waiting is a big part of life. We are all used to waiting, sometimes patiently, sometimes unwillingly: in waiting rooms, on platforms and at bus stops, and sometimes just in front of the pot on the stove. The question at the forefront of our mind is, “Is it now?” – “Is it now that they’ll see me, that the proverbial bus will arrive or the pot boil?” Of course, nine times out of ten, we end up waiting longer than we wished or anticipated but, once the wait is over, we go on with our business with relief and renewed enthusiasm.

Most of us, I imagine, whatever we may have to wait for on a daily basis, will find ourselves waiting for spring to arrive. Winter, for all its beauty and drama, has a way of dragging on just a bit too long. No one can refute the beauty of a hoar frost on a clear, sunlit day or the fun and playfulness that snow brings, but it is nevertheless cold, wet, slippery and generally disruptive. Each of us begins to look hopefully for the signs of spring, becoming increasingly sensitive to even the smallest temperature changes, the first buds and the increase in birdsong.

And yet spring is never hurried. As I write we are emerging from the ‘Beast from the East’ that just as the first crocuses and daffodils flickered into life, arrived and shrouded the land in snow and ice, snuffing out those tender shoots of light. I visited the local gravel pits in the midst of the icy blast and found nature thrown about and in disarray caught by the icy grip of the sub-zero elements.

Snipe, usually comfortably and perfectly camouflaged in the reeds, stood dotted about, out in the open by any puddle that had not yet frozen. Lapwings strung across the skies, heading west in search of non-frozen ground on which to feed. A kingfisher sat along the frozen river above the one small pool of unfrozen water. If that froze too the kingfisher would have to move on, keeping ahead of the ice to feed and giving it its German name: ‘Eisvogel’ or Ice Bird.

Up and down the country people reported many garden “firsts” as fieldfares, redwings, siskins and redpolls sought out garden feeders and last year’s windfall apples to tide them over the lean times. Even waders such as lapwing, woodcock and snipe were found taking refuge in gardens.

All this forced movement undoubtedly takes its toll on wildlife but it is also nature’s defibrillator: providing the shock and impetus to transition into spring. March is a month of highs and lows, a mix of some of our worst weather but also, often some the most promising spring days, when we feel our energy returning and even consider a bit of spring cleaning!

Traditionally this early spring rejuvenation has been referred to as the “sap rising” when energy for life is renewed and amorous appetites rekindled. However, it is not an entirely unscientific notion and the increased activity of nutrient-rich sap within many plants and trees in early spring is a necessary precursor to the emergence and growth of buds and leaves.

If you enjoyed pancakes on Pancake Day then you many well have poured tree sap on your pancakes. Of course we call it Maple Syrup but it is the sap of Maple trees harvested when it rises in early spring in Canada. The Canadians, understandably, have invested heavily in scientific research to find out exactly what makes for a good maple syrup harvest. Theories abound but one thing is clear – the frequency of the freeze-thaw cycle is critical. Without a series of freezes and thaws the yield of sap from the maple trees just won’t be as great – the sap will not rise. It seems the dramatic temperature fluctuations are crucial in creating pressure differentials within the trees that get the sap or syrup moving.

I found myself standing in front of a Maple Tree in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London recently. Planted in 1998 by a former Canadian prime minister it looked bare and lifeless and yet I knew that within, the syrup would be flowing, pushing new life to its young branches. We may not always see it but Spring is coming and if ever there was a positive way to view March’s fickle and sometimes fierce weather it must be this: it is nature’s way of shuddering back to life and maybe, if we embrace the elements too, we’ll feel our own sap rising too!


The Maple Tree (Acer Saccharum) in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London