One of the treats for a young person growing up in the Appalachian Mountains is reaching out to pluck a birch twig during a hike. Not just any birch but one of the sweet birches. The property I grew up on had plenty of black birch and it is the strongest flavored in my recollection but the property I have now has yellow birch on it. Both are wintergreen flavored and the inner bark can be made into a tea. The wintergreen flavor comes from methyl salicylate which functions like aspirin and therefore can be used for pain relief.
One of the surprises that I learned several years ago was the existence of birch beer. It’s called beer but it’s technically a wine. The birch tree is tapped like a maple and the sap is then boiled down into syrup just like maple and to make the birch beer it’s allowed to ferment into wine. I can’t really speak to the flavor of birch syrup or beer/wine but it’s mentioned in several of my guide books.
The bark of a yellow birch has a distinctive look. The long curls of lose bark are kinda hard to miss. Birch bark here in the USA is thought of as the construction material for Native American canoes but I think that they used the tighter bark of the white birch with is more of a northern species. The bark was used for making cooking vessels as well. A square tray made from birch bark can be coated with the birch resin and made waterproof enough to cook soup by placing it directly in the fire. Even though birch bark is extremely flammable the water inside keeps it from burning and thus you can cook in it.
Speaking of birch resin, a very useful substance that’s commonly called “Birch oil” is a resin extracted from the bark. The method used is to coil the Bark in a can with a hole in the bottom. This can us placed over a second can or glass jar that’s in a hole in the ground and the whole thing is covered with hot coals from a fire and baked slowly. The oil collects in the bottom jar. In the 17th and 18th centuries people living in Russia used it to waterproof leather and I’ve heard it referenced that during World War 2 Jews who escaped into Russia was able to extend the life of their footwear with the aid of birch oil. A 5000 year old artifact found in Finland turned out to be chewing gum made from birch tar. Which shouldn’t be surprising because the Neanderthals used it to fletch their arrows.
What gardener doesn’t hate snails and slugs? They’re nothing more that living stomachs that destroy our gardens but the birch resin can come to the rescue here too. Mix up a little birch resin with petroleum jelly and paint a barrier around your food plot to keep the slimy critters out. (It’s said to last for months but it’s not a trick that I’ve tried yet. )
Birch resin is also used in making some perfumes but I haven’t researched into that yet.
Lastly, in the more northern climates birch is host to the true tinder fungus. Also known as Chaga. When we get into medical uses for anything I mot only feel the need to urge you to do your own research nut to be extra cautious about the advice you get. Chaga is one of those useful plants that has been hailed as a cure-all. There’s a lot of treatments cited and while I’m sure that there’s a lot of things that it helps I find a claims to be a little overblown and just way too enthusiastic about results. However, this parasite of birch trees was found in the kit of Otzi the ice man. Not only could it be used as incense to keep insects away but it actually helps build fires as tinder ( hence the name true tinder fungus) and he was apparently using it as food and medicine himself. I have included it in this post because of its close association with the birches. Those who study it say that it’s medicinal qualities come from it’s ability to concentrate Betulinic acid that’s produced by the birch tree. Studies are being done that say Betulinic acid may help some cancers but again, this is outside of my understanding enough that I have to ask the reader to seek out a professional for any advice about the validity of that claim.
One last image that I have to share is one of the more interesting trees on my mountain. It’s what’s called a false graft. Normally a graft can only occur within the same species but on the edge of my yard I have a yellow birch and a magnolia that are mechanically joined. Just how this happened I don’t really know for sure. It’s common for trees that are close to each other to grow around one another but here the magnolia is actually growing a horizontal trunk into the birch.
I hope that you have enjoyed tonight’s Forage Friday post. When I started Forage Friday I stated that I would continue to post them as long as I could find wild edible plants to feature and I do plan to continue #ForageFriday indefinitely. However, as the winter months are upon us I might have to post an alternative here and there to keep from having to post duplicate photos. I have held back some photos so I can try to stretch the content for as long as possible but we’ll have to see if it was enough. Good night and be blessed!
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