As a kid, my dad would peel a little bark off of a few birch trees and make small canoes that he’d give as gifts or sell. I’d heard of birch being used to make furniture and knew the bark could be used for baskets, writing on, and made great fire starter. Years later I would learn just how valuable this tree truly is. It’s true that birch bark has been used for generations to make baskets and the wood has been used for furniture and dogsleds, snowshoes, and canoes. But there are many uses of the mighty birch tree.
Last spring, about late April and early May we tapped several trees and collected birch water or birch sap. This was our first time and were quite surprised by the quantity we were able to collect. In some trees we collected as much as a gallon per day. The water/sap typically runs two to three weeks depending upon the weather each year. The water should be clear and taste slightly sweet. If you get discolored water from a tree you should discard it, pull the spile and find a new tree. When the leaves appear it’s time to pull the spiles as the sugar is gone from the sap.
Birch water carries the nutrients for the tree’s growth. According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, those nutrients include: Fructose, Glucose, small amount of sucrose, Fruit Acids, Amino Acids, Vitamin C, Potassium, Calcium, Phosphorous, Magnesium, Manganese, Zinc, Sodium, Iron
Birch water is refreshing and we often drank it as we were collecting it each day. We transferred ours into a glass pitcher that we kept in the refrigerator and drank it regularly. When we collected too much for the pitcher, we began using glass mason jars but found the even though we only tapped a half dozen trees, we couldn’t drink it as fast as the trees were giving it to us. Since birch water is perishable it must be kept below 41° Fahrenheit and out of the direct sunlight, I initially stored our excess in a five gallon water jug buried in the snow on the north side of our house. We then used this to water to make ice cubes and fill water bottles which we froze for later use. We used the birch water to make coffee and tea and used the ice cubes when making smoothies.
Rachelle and I have seen and talked with others who use their birch water for making syrup. The birch water has a sugar content of around 0.8 to 1.5 percent so it takes approximately 100 gallons of birch water to make one gallon of syrup. While I am confident we could have collected the 100 gallons the process of making the syrup is lengthy and requires near constant attention over a couple of days. Most use propane burners or wood fires outside to concentrate the sap. In the end, Rachelle and I decided that while it would be fun to make birch syrup, it would be far less expensive to buy it than make it ourselves. I’m sure that if we were to do this on a larger scale we could make it cost effective and potentially turn a profit but at this time, we’ll just enjoy drinking the cold and refreshing water we collect. Birch water can also be used to make beer or wine.
Birch’s Medicinal Uses
Birch has anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, antiseptic, and astringent properties. The birch leaves can be infused in apple cider vinegar for four weeks to make a tonic that is rich in vitamins and minerals. This infusion helps to strengthen the immune system. Add a tablespoon to a glass of water to relieve your headache. The leaves can be used to make a tea which can eliminate urinary tract infections and help dissolve kidney stones. The tea is reported to help with joint health, steoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, growing pains, rickets, osteoporosis, broken bones, and tooth decay.
The Finnish discovered that birch trees contain a sweetener called xylitol. Xylitol kills bacteria and helps reduce cavities. Natural toothpastes, mouthwashes and gums are made from the birch’s inner bark.
Birch leave and branches contain a resin-like substance that has a wintergreen aroma. They can be used to make a tea, decoction or as a compress for pain relief. A steam of the leaves can help clear sinus congestion.
The birch buds can be collected in the springtime and infused in oil to make a salve or balm for inflamed skin.
Chaga is a parasitic fungus that is found growing on birch trees. It has been long used in folk medicine and is believed to fight inflammation, lower blood sugar, reduce blood pressure, alleviate arthritis and even prevent or slow the progression of cancer. Chaga is rich in fiber and essential nutrients including vitamin D, iron, magnesium, potassium, manganese and calcium. Chaga also has a high level of melanin which lead some to believe it can boost your skin’s naturally occurring melanin to protect it from sun damage. Chaga is removed from the tree, dried and then either broken into chunks or ground for making tea. The tea has an earthy flavor. Some add honey to the tea to bring out its slightly vanilla-like essence.
The birch tree, from hot burning firewood to beautiful cabinetry and baskets, canoes and medicinal uses, few trees are as truly versatile. Rachelle and I are blessed to have a good mix of trees on our property to include many large birch. If you have a birch that has been recently cut down, take advantage of the opportunity to harvest the tree for all that it offers. Rachelle has even used cut rounds for her artwork. The next time you find yourself standing beside one of these incredible trees, grab a handful of leaves and twigs for a cup of tea (see recipe below).
Birch Bark Tea Recipe
To make a wintergreen-flavored tea, cut some birch twigs in small pieces. Cover twigs with boiling birch water. Let it steep for a minute or two, then strain out the twigs and sweeten tea to taste. Some like to add cream or hot milk.
*Birch bark from stumps and roots is considered best. Use a knife or a carpenter’s wood scraper to remove the outer, dry layer and then peel off the inner bark. It peels best in the spring or early summer. If this is cut in small pieces and dried at ordinary room temperature, then sealed in jars you can have Birch Tea throughout the year.
Use boiled water when birch water is not available. The wintergreen flavor is very volatile, and easily driven off by too much heat so never boil twigs or bark in making this tea and never dry bark in too warm a location.