In the Winter the woods can seem barren and devoid of life, but even in the depths of the cold times, there are trees which can provide us with food, medicine and more. The Birch family boasts a wide array of useful trees.
The Black or Sweet Birch (Betula lenta), which we have in abundance in Appalachia, was extracted to make Birch oil (also known as wintergreen oil), a flavoring agent you might recognize from old fashioned root and Birch beers. It contains an aspirin-like compound called methyl salicylate that is responsible for the wintergreen scent and pleasant, root beer-like flavor of birches. Birch tea and tincture can be used as a mild aspirin substitute for pain and fevers due to this incredible chemical. You can combine it with our White pine or Hemlock tree needles and/or Peppermint as a lovely winter tea.
Birch sap all on its own is a traditional drink in Northern Europe, Russia, and Northern China. In Russia, they not only drank the sap for pleasure, but also as a cure for consumption. It was also used as a lubricant, and the bark was used as a torch, as well as a cleanser in the form of steam in bath houses and saunas.
Birch was used in Ireland for bark tanning leather, preserving fishing lines, and making brooms. The dense, straight grained wood made it useful for making everything from toys to bobbins, spools and reels for working with textiles. In Scotland it was used for agricultural tools, building material and for all manner of household things due to its abundance.
The sap can also be used to make Birch syrup, but its ratio of sap to finished syrup is much higher than maple, making it an arduous process. You can also extract birch tar at home to use as a traditional bonding agent, fuel, medicine, waterproofing, leather treatment and wood preserver. Birch wood can also be used to smoke foods like herring.
It makes a fine firewood and burns well even when damp due to its oil content. Ground Birch bark was fermented in sea water and used for seasoning the woolen, hemp or linen sails and hemp ropes of traditional Norwegian boats. The bark was also sometimes cordaged into wicks for burning like candles, and the twigs were used to make functional brooms. Striking criminals with bundles of Birch twigs also eventually became a form of corporal punishment known as birching. In legend, it was even said Christ himself was beaten with Birch rods.
Different First Nations people used Birch in a variety of ways, but the Birch bark was especially useful for containers, canoes, and many other uses. They used a variety of species for bark harvest, such as Black or Sweet Birch (Betula lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) and a few others. Birch twigs and branches also made fine wattle for structure building, as well as thatch for roofing.
In Appalachia, Birches were used much the same as elsewhere. Birch oil was made from Black Birch, containers made from various species’ bark, and carved wares and furniture made from the lumber. A special bioregional note, however, is that our Yellow Birch houses the mystical Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus), which is an amazing adaptogen that has active components for antioxidant, antitumoral, and antiviral activities and for improving human immunity against infection of pathogenic microbes. Please remember though, Chaga is a rare find, and a precious one at that. Always harvest from the forest wisely, or choose other immune supporting mushrooms likes Turkeytail and Reishi which are more common to sustainably wildcraft.
You can make a tea from the young root bark, leaves or branch tips- or just go ahead and eat the tips! Very young leaves can be eaten or used for flavoring. And you can make anything from cups to baskets to canoes out of the bark! Birch sawdust can be added to flour to extend it. The inner bark, the cambium, is edible and can be used as a flour-like substitute. The wood, solid or rotten, can make a smokey burn to cure fish and meat, or the wood can also be used for a fawn-colored dye.
The Creeks used the Black Birch to treat tuberculosis of the lungs, the Catawbas boiled buds and added sulfur to make a salve to treat ringworm and sores. The Alabama boiled the bark to treat sore horse hooves, and the Cherokee chewed the leaves or made a tea to treat colds, dysentery and urinary issues. The trees’ oil was also used to treat dandruff and as a perfume.
One group that historically uses the inner bark is the Sami people of northern Scandinavia, for whom the Birch tree is nearly as central to their way of life as the reindeer. They typically harvest the bark from trees felled for timber, firewood, waterproofing, or handicrafts, peeling it off in large sheets from the smooth trunks while still fresh. Once harvested, the reddish brown, almost cork-like phloem is separated from the outer bark and left to dry either in the sun, by a fire or wood stove, or in a dehydrator. It is then ground into flour and used to make bread and crackers.
Enjoy and as always, never eat a plant you are not 100% positive of, and always learn from a REAL expert!
Sources and Further Reading:
- Hageneder, Fred. The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2005. Print.
- Kendall, Paul. “Birch.” Mythology and Folklore . Trees for Life, n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
- Loudon, J. C. An Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs; Being the Arboretum Et Fruticetum Britannicum Abridged: Containing the Hardy Trees and Shrubs of Britain Native and Foreign, Scientifically and Popularly Described; with Their Propagation, Culture, and Uses in the Arts; and with Engravings of Nearly All Species. Abridged from the Large Edition in Eight Volumes, and Adapted for the Use of Nurserymen, Gardeners, and Foresters. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1842. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland: Timber, 1998. Print.
- Skinner, Charles M. Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants: In All Ages and All Climes. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1939. Print.