Betula nigra, photo by SIU.EDU

Betula nigra, the Black Birch or River Birch, photo by SIU.EDU

One could easily write a book about Birches because they are so valuable to foragers. While I grew up with white birches in Maine Birches don’t grow locally though if you plant one about 100 miles north of here as an ornamental it will survive. The Black Birch, Betula nigra, however is a native and can be found in northwestern Florida.

Birch Bark Cup, photo by Etsy

Birch Bark Cup, photo by Etsy

Let’s talk first about the well-know facts about Birches: Yes you can drink the sap and make syrup, beer, wine or vinegar out of it, or sugar. You can make a tea from the root bark, leaves or branch tips or eat the tips. Very young leaves can be eaten or used for flavoring. And you can make 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 (that won’t rise.) 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 wood of Birches catches fire even if wet.) The species’ “wintergreen” aroma is methyl salicylate which is closely related to aspirin and has medicinal applications. 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 species’ oil was also used to treat dandruff and as a perfume.

Birch tar cooled to a hard resin, photo by Green Deane

Birch tar cooled to a hard resin, photo by Green Deane

What you may not know is that Birch resin, or tar, was the first super glue. I even have my own chunk of it, left (thank’s Bill!) Archaeological research shows it has been used for at least 80,000 years: A spear point is extant with a Neanderthal thumb print in the tar. There also exists 11,000 year old bits of Birch tar with human teeth marks… crude chewing gum. Ancient Greeks used the tar to mend broken pottery. Birch tar is solid at 65°F, moldable at 85°F, a stiff putty at 105°F, a soft sticky putty at 135°F and boils at 352°F. Birch tar is not made from the sap but rather the bark itself, heated in an oven with little air (similar to making charcoal.) The bark expresses an oil that runs out a small hole in the bottom of the oven. When it cools it’s waterproof and not brittle. Among the tar’s many uses was to glue arrowheads to shafts.

Peeling Birch Bark also makes excellent tinder.

Peeling Birch Bark also makes excellent tinder.

Betula is Dead Latin for the tree and genus (BEH-too-lah and beh-TOO-lah.) “Birch” is from Old English berc or beorc which again is from Betula. Another view is that “birch” is from the Germanic word Birka. In Gaelic it is beith, which is also the first letter of the old Gaelic alphabet. Native Americans had many names for Birch including: mianoo’s (Potawatomi) onaguchscha (Onondaga) wigwass (Ojibwa) winachk (Delaware) and wuskwiy (Plains Cree.) The Black Birch. or River Birch found north and west of the Suwannee River, was called the akcelelas’kv by the Muskogee, lokapi by the Choctaw, onaget by the Onondaga, and yap koko’ha by the Catawba which means “tree breaks, brittle.”

The White Birches of New England

The White Birches of New England in fall color.

Depending upon which authority you consult there are 30 to 150 species of birches in the temperate world (don’t forget cooler South America!) There’s 13 to 15 species in North America, four or so in the Old South.  Found in North America are the Yellow or Gray Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) Black Birch or River Birch (Betula nigra) Water Birch (Betula occidentalis) Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) European Birch (Betula pendula) Gray Birch (Betula populifolia) and the Virginia Roundleaf Birch (Betula uber) which is endangered. The South has Betula lenta, Betula nigra, Betula alleghaniensis and Betula papyrifera var. cordifolia. There also might be in North America — again depending upon whom you ask — Betula cordifolia, Betula glandulosa, Betula kenaica, Betula michauxii, Betula minor, Betula nana, Betula neoalaskana, and Betula pumila, most of which are dwarf species and just might be smaller versions of the aforementioned species. Record birches tend to be about 60 feet tall and can live to around 140 years.

Birch Polypores only grow on Birches

Birch Polypores only grow on Birches, photo by Hitch Hiker’s Notebook

A hardwood the specific gravity of North American birches ranges from  0.55 to 0.65 and has been used for furniture. Where ever they grow Birches are… appealing. An adult birch tree can produce a million seeds a year which is food for birds including the American goldfinch, pine siskin, northern junco, blue jay, chickadees and sparrows. Birches can also be important nesting sites for red-tailed hawks and vireos as well as cavity nesting sites for chickadees and woodpeckers. Strips of birch bark are the main building materials used by vireos for their hanging nests while other birds and squirrels use the bark to make nests and line dens. The Yellow-bellied sapsucker drills into birches to make the sap weep to attract ants which the bird then eats. The Birch Polypore, Piptoporus betulinus, used for sharpening knives, also only grows on birches.

Birch Tree Train Depot, 1955.

Birch Tree Train Depot, 1955.

By the way, the town of Birch Tree is in Missouri, elevation 991 feet, population 679. Nestled in the Ozarks it was named for the tree growing near the post office. Don’t laugh, Viburnum, Missouri, got it’s name in a similar way. Between the 2000 and the 2010 census Birch Tree’s population increased by 45 people. Small as it may be the governor of Missouri from 2001 to 2005,  Bob Holden, was born in Birch Tree. And the governor directly before Holden, Mel Carnahan, was also from Birch Tree. While governor in 2000 Carnahan ran for the U.S. senate and was elected post posthumously, the only time that has ever happened. He died in a plane crash three weeks before the election. As Carnahan’s name could not be removed from the ballot his wife Jean stepped in and won the election by a 2% margin. She was then appointed senator by the lieutenant governor, Roger B. Wilson.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Black Birch, River Birch

IDENTIFICATION: Betula nigra: Medium size deciduous tree to 35 feet, reddish to yellowish brown, scaly flaking bark. Leaves alternate, simple, almost triangular in shape, doubly serrated. Male flowers pendulous catkins, female flowers short, erect catkins,

TIME OF YEAR: Different parts different times of the year.

ENVIRONMENT: Floodplains and wooded stream banks. It is the only Birch found a low altitudes in the southeastern United States.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Like all the other birches.

A couple of related issues: People who have an allergy to bananas often have an allergy to Birches. Grace Morley, 18, of England, suffers from one of the world’s oddest allergies. She goes into toxic shock if she eats an apple near a birch tree. Morley has no reaction to either the fruit or tree pollen on their own.

Birches

By Robert Frost, 1915

Robert Frost

Robert Frost, in his mid-30s

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Elaine May 18, 2014 at 17:31

can you eat chauga if you are allergic to birch trees?

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Green Deane May 18, 2014 at 17:57

I wouldn’t.

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Angi Webb March 1, 2014 at 01:22

You mention the millions of seeds eaten by birds and squirrels. Are tehy edible for humans?

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Green Deane March 4, 2014 at 10:09

Yes, but small.

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Gen January 11, 2014 at 22:52

Chauga is not a mushroom

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Green Deane January 12, 2014 at 16:50

I never call it a mushroom, but many people do.

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Thetwick November 1, 2013 at 16:45

Can you eat the birch bark raw?

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Green Deane November 1, 2013 at 16:47

Well… you could but why? It’s not easily digested. I mean… it won’t kill you but your tummy might not like it.

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Thetwick November 1, 2013 at 16:50

I had just heard that you needed to boil bark and was wondering if it was necessary. Thanks. 🙂

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Green Deane November 1, 2013 at 16:53

well… humans are not bark eaters so boiling bark is understandable but it is a texture/digestion thing. The tree is edible. Can it upset your tummy? Sure. I mean it is extremely difficult to die from eating birches, not impossible, but difficult. So the issues is palatability. 1) Can I am this part palatable and 2) not irritate my GI tract that is not designed to eat trees.

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Louis October 13, 2013 at 08:35

Thanks for the tip on Chaga. I’ve just begun looking and have not found any yet. It seems to be not as common as many would have you believe.

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Chuck July 22, 2013 at 20:07

When I was a kid we used to go to an alder stand (poplar) where they grew tall and thin, climb as high as we could, hang on and jump, bending the tree and bounce up and down as long as we could. Once in awhile they would break but not often,probabaly because we didn’t weigh much .I can remember going up and down like a bungee jump today. Just country living making our own fun.

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Louise-Jayne Haddaway July 12, 2013 at 23:30

birches are pretty much medicine from the tips to the roots. also the only place you will find chaga mushrooms growing. never ever use a knife to cut the chaga mushroom, you will kill it. chaga is the king of medicinal mushrooms and is not a parasite on the birch, but grow over a serious wound, outward like a cone. very hard. to wild craft you must be break a piece off with a rock or your hands. again, metal will kill the chaga mushroom. Chaga is high in nutrition and minerals that we no longer get in our food. I get mine from Mountain Rose herbs cause i know they train their foragers and wild crafters very carefully. I use it to stave off illness and to rebuild my body after a bad experience with rad/chemo. do not refrigerate it. you can get five uses out of one dose. write me if you wish to know more on how to use it. i am dun roam in at yahoo dot com.

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Jackie May 14, 2013 at 15:25

Thanks. I love ROBERT FROST! Riding a Birch tree sounds fun!

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Carol McGrath May 6, 2013 at 23:32

The birch allergy is called Oral Allergy Syndrome. The allergin is a molecule called Bet v 1, which is found in several other foods, especially certain types of apples. I can eat SOME apples, but NOT Gala apples. Cooking them neutralizes it so cooked apples are okay. The molecule can also be found in other things like hazelnuts, almonds, carrots and plums. It’s NOT connected to plant families as carrots are in a very different family than hazelnuts or apples. The Birch in my area has just started dropping pollen and I’ve just started sneezing and having eye irritation. I’ll stop eating those foods raw and just take them cooked until the birches have finished with the pollen. It took me YEARS to figure this out although I always avoided eating hazelnuts in those cans of mixed nuts as a kid because they “made my throat feel scratchy”. The apples didn’t bother me until I was about 5o, and I really got sick in the Spring when I moved to where I live now … near an old growth forest in Ontario that has a lot of birches as an understory tree to white pine.

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Becky April 23, 2013 at 17:50

Thank you so much for this website and your time and dedication. This is priceless!

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Madeleine April 23, 2013 at 15:55

Some weeds cant grow around birches, as apple trees and so on. Birches are tough trees. 😀

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William Johnson April 17, 2013 at 13:15

An interesting point I think with regard to Birch allergies. In my 20’s I worked in a Liquor Store in Ontario. one of the other fellows who worked there made Birch Wine. On a visit to his home one evening I had a glass of the wine. It was no more than two ounces tops. I was sick for two weeks after with what was the worst hangover possible. Vomiting the works. I did recover but since then if I drink white wine it makes very sick. Even one sip and I am nauseated. I did not have this problem before drinking the Birch Wine and I have no problem with drinking red wine. This reaction has not improved in 40 years. And although I can eat birch leaves, if I make tea or tincture with the bark I get the same reaction as with the wine. Thought you might find that interesting.
Still love your foraging contributions. Ciao for now.
Sincerely,
Bill Johnson
Wildcrafter/Forager/Herbalist
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Reply

ET April 14, 2013 at 17:16

The book you´re thinking about may already have been written:
http://www.collier-international.co.uk/documents/Bjork.pdf

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Steve March 12, 2013 at 15:34

Yes indeed, I remember them in Montana I think, but am not sure, and in New Jersey for sure, from times past…to bad I didnt apreciate them back then as much! Keep up the good work…Love the newsletter, the videos, the whole piece of work..thanks again… Best, Steve

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Steve March 12, 2013 at 15:32

Yes indeed, I remember them in montana and new jersey from times past…to bad I didnt apreciate them back then as much! Keep up the good work…Love the newsletter, the videos, the whole piece of work..thanks again… Best, Steve

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Paul Deffes March 6, 2013 at 14:14

Excellent article Deane. Thank you.

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