The Many Uses of the Mighty Birch Tree

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.

Birch Water

Last spring, about late April and early Rachelle Tapping Birch TreesMay 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 refrigeratorBirch Tree Water 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.


Birch Tree Chaga MushroomChaga 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 Hand drawn Fox on Birch tree Ornamentblessed 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 Tree ornaments
Birch Tree ornaments

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.

If you found this article interesting, check out our other postings on Spruce and Labrador Tea.

The Black Spruce

Black Spruce

For nearly twenty years the first weekend in December was the time we took the families out into the mountains of Southern Oregon. It was a full day of sledding, snowball fights and a cookout in the snow. The day was wrapped up by finding our Christmas Tree, usually a beautiful, tall, and full Douglas Fir. After moving back to the Interior of Alaska, My son Jake and I decided to continue the tradition. We hopped in the truck and drove out of town, spending the day driving the highway and back roads, wading through waist deep snow looking for that perfect Christmas Tree. We would discover that the sparse boughs of the black spruce of interior Alaska are nothing like those of the Douglas fir. Eventually, we would find a satisfactory tree, cut it down, haul it home, and with the help of lots of ornaments and tinsel, we celebrated a wonderful Christmas. Our spruce trees here may not be the most aesthetically pleasing of the fir trees but the spruce has so many other incredible uses that it more than makes up for its looks.

From cabin logs to firewood to food to medicine, Alaskan natives, for generations, have taken advantage of all the black spruce has to offer. Today, it’s still the wood of choice for log cabins and firewood in the Interior Alaska Native Villages. However, for a variety of reasons, the other uses of the spruce seem to be practiced far less. Instead, a cabinet full of over-the-counter medications alleviate the same conditions as this amazing tree.

The spruce’s tips can be brewed into a relaxing tea that is high in vitamin C. Folks often put honey, cinnamon, orange or lemon slices in their spruce tea. A wonderfully light jelly can also be made from the tips. (see recipe below) Spruce’s inner bark has also been used as a survival food. The inner bark can be eaten raw, boiled, or dried and ground up into a flour.

We recently enjoyed a wonderful spring day out collecting spruce tips for our tincture. We walked among the trees, wading through the rapidly melting snow that comes with the mid 40’s temperatures. A welcome change from this year’s harsh winter. The sun was out and the sky was such a bright blue. We moved from tree to tree taking a few of the fresh green tips. It was easy to tell the new growth from the old by the difference in the shades of green. We picked a few from each tree and moved on, careful not to take too much from any one tree. Along the way I also picked up from spruce pitch to have on hand as well. We filled our bags and enjoyed the changing of the seasons, some fresh air, and each other before heading back to the house to prepare our remedy.

Food uses of the Black Spruce:

Tea – relaxing and high in Vitamin C – add lemon or orange slices, cinnamon, cloves, or honey
Inner bark – traditional survival foot – eaten raw or boiled or dried and ground into flour
Jelly – The spruce tips make a very light jelly that many say pares well with meats, cheeses and crackers.

Medicinal uses of the Black Spruce:

Spruce Tips

Tea – Spruce tips have an antiseptic property that helps relieve symptoms related to pneumonia, whooping cough, croup (lung congestion). The tea also a wonderful boost to the immune system.
Steam – Boil the needles and inhale the steam for sinus infections and lung issues.
Syrup/Jelly – Spruce Syrup can be taken to relieve a sore throat. (see recipe below)
Tincture – A couple of droppers full of spruce tip tincture dripped under the tongue can support the immune system when the cold season hits. The tincture can also be applied externally to joints and muscles to ease aches and pains. It has also been shown to reduce inflammation. A few drops of spruce tip tincture in a glass of water can be used as a mouthwash to treat gingivitis.
Salves, Creams, Oils and Poultice – Spruce tips prepared in these manners can be used to treat joint and muscle pain, improve blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and when combined with spruce pitch can treat eczema, boils, and acne.

Inner Bark:

Tea – The tea of the black spruce’s inner bark can be used to treat sore throat, upset stomach, ulcers and mouth sores.


The spruce pitch has been used as a cough lozenger to relieve the discomfort of a sore throat. Because of the trees antiseptic properties, the sap can also be used to protect wounds, cuts, and abrasions.

Below are our recipes for Spruce tip tincture, syrup and jelly.


So what’s the advantage of a tincture over a tea or decoction? The short answer is that a tincture has a very long shelf life, is highly concentrated, easy to apply, and portable.

Spruce Tip Tinctures

Several handfuls of Spruce tips
80 Proof (minimum) alcohol such as vodka
Airtight jar

Gather several handfuls of fresh spruce tips and rinse them in cold water to remove any debris.

Place the tips in your jar so the jar is full but not crammed. Add approximately 1 tablespoon of honey and fill the jar with alcohol until spruce tips are fully covered. Seal the jar, give it a good shake and place in a location out of direct sunlight for approximately six weeks. You should shake your jars frequently. We try to do this each day.

At the end of the six weeks, open your jars and strain the mixture to remove the solids. Your tincture will now have a dark color to it. While you can leave it in the jar you used to make the tincture in, we have purchased 2 oz green glass bottles with eye droppers for ours. In either case, be sure to label your bottle with date, what’s inside, and the type and proof of the alcohol used.

Spruce Syrup

Spruce Tips

There are two methods for making spruce syrup. The first is the traditional method uses equal parts spruce tips and sugar. These are layered in a jar and then placed in a sunny location for 2-4 weeks. This process extracts water from the spruce tips and creates a syrup. At the end of this process, simply strain and bottle. This has an approximate 5 month life when refrigerated.

Another method, for those that just can’t wait a month for their jelly, is to cook it up.

Chop up approximately 2 cups of freshly picked and rinsed spruce tips. Add these to a pot with 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water. Bring this slowly to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the spruce tips and bring the mixture to a full boil. Pour into sterilized jars and process them in a water bath for 15 minutes for long-term storage. For immediate use, pour into bottles and store in a cool location or your refrigerator.

Spruce Jelly

3 Cups of Spruce Tips
3 Cups of water
4 Cups of Sugar (or to taste)
1 pkg Pectin
6 Tbsp Lemon Juice

Give your spruce tips a quick wash and remove any debris. Roughly chop the spruce tips before adding them and the water to your pan. Bring to a boil and then remove it from the heat. Allow the tea to steep overnight. The longer your tea steeps the stronger the flavor of your jelly will be. Alternatively, you could simmer for 40 minutes and continue making your jelly.

Strain the tea through a fine sieve or cheesecloth and heat the pot on high heat. Stir in the pectin and lemon juice and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the sugar, whisking to prevent clumping, until it reaches a full boil. Let it boil for two minutes and then remove it from the heat. You can use a spoon to skim off any foam that may develop.

Place a small amount of the jelly on the back of a cool spoon to test. It should have a syrup like consistency. If after cooling on the spoon it is still too thin you can bring it to a boil again and then retest.

Once the jelly has reached your desired consistency, pour it into sterilized jars and then process them in a water bath for five minutes.

Coming Next

This is the first in a series of articles on our foraging. Please subscribe to our blog to get all of our updates and information. You can also subscribe to our podcast here or find us in your favorite podcasting app.

We will be sharing more about the wonderful birch tree including all the details of the birch water that we are collecting right now. Additionally, we will be talking about the cottonwood (balsam poplar), willow, old man’s beard (usnea), Labrador tea, and a plenty more so join us as we continue to take advantage of what our amazing state has to offer us.

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions please don’t hesitate to contact us. You can send us a message from the website. We enjoy hearing from everyone and appreciate the feedback.

Collecting Labrador Tea

Labrador Tea

Sometimes you just get lucky and stumble onto something. This was the case when Rachelle and I were out checking the trapline. I had walked into the treeline the previous day to set a couple of snares in the trees. When Rachelle and I went to check them I spotted Labrador Tea under the snow along the trail. We took advantage of the opportunity and collected a handful of the very fragrant plant.

Labrador Tea grows throughout most of Alaska in boggy areas. Though some prefer to pick the leaves and flowers in the summer, it can be picked year around. If you are picking be aware that the poisonous Bog-Rosemary looks very similar to Labrador Tea. The difference is that the bottom of the Labrador Tea leaf is orange or rusty, Bog-Rosemary leaves on the other hand are white underneath and and are missing that very distinctive fragrance that Labrador Tea has.

Alaskan Natives have used Labrador Tea for generations. The leaves are broken up into pieces to release the oils and then boiling water is poured over them and allowed to steep. The tea can be drank as is or sweetened with honey. The teas medicinal properties are used for a variety of ailments to include stomach aches, colds, coughs, sleeping problems, heartburn, and arthritis. Labrador tea can help reduce pain and inflammation.

In addition to using it as a drink, you can also make it into a tincture, oil, or poultice. Labrador Tea can also be used for culinary purposes in place of bay leaves for your stews, sauces, and soups.

We’ll be sharing our recipes, uses, and experiences with Labrador Tea soon so be sure to subscribe to our blog for those updates. You can also follow our adventures on our podcast which you can find in your favorite Podcast app on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Spotify, and TuneIn. You can also listen right from our website.