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This guide is meant to inspire, not to be THE definitive and complete source on birch identification. Be sure to confirm identification at least THREE DIFFERENT WAYS before consuming any wild plant.
Never eat a wild plant until you are certain of its identity and edibility.
Sweet Birch, Black Birch, Cherry Birch
A magical tree with three names
There are several species of birch tree found throughout most North American deciduous woodlands. Sweet (betula lenta) which is also called black or cherry and river birch (betula nigra) are the most prevalent. Sweet birch should not be confused with river birch, a tree while found primarily in wetlands and flood plains, can be planted and will grow nearly anywhere in the United States. Sweet, or black or cherry, birch trees grow to be over 40 ft (12 m) tall; tree leaves get about 5″ to 6″ long x 2″ to 3.5″ wide.
River birch (pictured above) is sometimes erroneously called black birch.
All birches contain oil that can be extracted from the bark. Due to this oil, birch bark is flammable and can often burn even when damp. Black birch lumber is heavy, quite suitable for furniture making and can be used as a mahogany substitute. It is an excellent carving wood and is the preferred material for Scandinavian made knife handles.
The most easily identifiable feature of sweet birch is the bark that changes as the tree ages. The bark on a young sweet birch tree is smooth and dark with small, horizontal lines called lenticels. As the tree grows, the bark begins to develop vertical cracks and eventually scaly plates.
NOTE: Using bark characteristics alone can lead to confusing a sweet birch with a black cherry tree. Using a small twig, scratch open the bark of the tree you wish to identify. Sweet birch will smell pleasant and wintergreen minty. The black cherry tree will have an unpleasant odor with no presence of mint, at all.
Yellow birch (betula alleghaniensis) is native to Northeastern North America. Its unique, yellowish, peeling bark is easy to identify except when the tree is very young. Yellow birch saplings have smooth, dark bark and as the tree grows, fine, horizontal strips of golden bark peel off and curl.
Birch bark provides probably the most versatile and even life-saving resources of all the trees in the eastern woods, save maybe the pine. Rich with volatile oils, birch bark burns with a dark black smoke. In the summer, this smoke can help drive off insects. Birch bark is virtually unmatched in its ability to burn in damp conditions. When using open flame it requires almost no processing to quickly create a hot, warming fire that will dry marginal tinder.
Birch bark is also prized as a material for crafting containers of all sorts and for weaving to make baskets and sheaths. Native peoples used birch bark to make the outer skin of canoes. It is possible to harvest the outer bark without killing a live tree so long as you do not disturb the inner bark. Make test cuts to determine the thickness and pliability of the bark before taking a large harvest. It is best to harvest the bark from live trees between May and June. Birch is a tree so resilient and resistant to rot that bark can be harvested anytime in a pinch, even from dead trees.
Birches growing at higher altitudes from New England and Michigan down to North Carolina are susceptible to a parasitic fungus (Inonotus obliquus) commonly called tinder fungus, or chaga. Chaga is found on live and fallen trees and is desirous for fire tinder as well as medicinal properties. It will grow on maple or ash trees, but it’s important to get it from birch trees for the most benefits. Appearing as a blackened mass on the trunk, chaga resembles a dark clump of dirt more than a mushroom.
The fungus is prized for its medicinal properties, woodsmen are known to boil a chunk of chaga to drink as a daily tea. Chaga is rich in antioxidants that may reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called “bad” cholesterol, lower stress and reduce blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It is also being studied for its cytokine regulation which helps support the immune system and fight inflammation, including rheumatoid arthritis. The fungus is packed with vitamins, minerals and nutrients including B-complex vitamins, amino acids and calcium. Chaga mushroom products are available as a nutritional supplement and in herbal teas.
Find the soft yellow areas below the black crust for use as a fire starter. The material will take the sparks from both steel and ferrocerium rod and will hold an ember to be used for ignition. Slice in thin layers or create a dust to stow in your kit for later use.
Collect birch oil using two containers made from metal or heavy clay. Bury the first container, called the catchment container, in the ground to the rim. Make a drain or drain holes in the bottom of the second container and fill it with birch bark. Place this container just over the catchment container. Build a fire around the above ground container to heat the material and release the oils which will drip slowly down into the catchment container below. It will take several minutes to fill a small container. Extinguish the fire or let it burn out before carefully removing the top container to expose the small pool of oil in the catchment container. This birch oil is highy medicinal and can be used as both an antiseptic and an insect repellent. It is also FLAMMABLE so be cautious when using.
~* DO NOT TAKE BIRCH ESSENTIAL OIL INTERNALLY. *~
Wintergreen essential oil naturally contains 98% methyl salicylate and sweet birch essential oil contains approximately 90% methyl salicylate. Methyl salicylate is a lot like acetyl salicylate, which is aspirin. Like aspirin, it has medicinal qualities, such as anti-inflammatory and anti-fever properties. And, like aspirin, pure oil of wintergreen from birch is toxic in large enough quantities. How large is large enough? A teaspoon (7 grams) of 98% methyl salicylate is equivalent to 90 baby aspirin which is four times the toxic dose for a child who weighs 22 lbs (10 kg).
Birch oil can be rendered down into an adhesive called birch tar. Slowly heat the oil and bring to a boil as if making gravy. Carefully stir, allowing impurities to escape and evaporate, until oil is the consistency of a thick paste.
WARNING: Both the liquid and the fumes are HIGHLY flammable.
BIRCH TAR PITCH STICK
One way to store the adhesive birch tar is to make a pitch stick. Like rolling cotton candy, roll the birch tar onto the end of a stick one layer at a time, letting each layer dry before wrapping the next. The tar can also be molded into squares or balls for storage and later use. Reheated birch tar is a completely waterproof gluing material. The adhesive is flexible and can be used for hafting and sealing containers and leathers, such as clothing or moccasin seams.
Find detailed instructions on how to collect birch oil, with pictures, here: http://www.jonsbushcraft.com/birchtar.htm
Birch sap can be harvested and used much the same as Maple, though tapped birch trees will need to have their sap collected about three times more often than with maple. Birch sap flavor is strong, more molasses than maple syrup.
Historically, birch beer, wine and mead have been made from soaking birch bark during the fermentation process as well as by fermenting birch sap. The non-alcoholic birch beer soda is made from the bark and other spices.
Here are two links with recipes for the adult variety of birch beer to help spend Winter’s time:
Birch Beer: Small Batch Recipe
Article contains overview of history of birch fermented beverages
Pennsylvania Birch Beer Recipe
Wintergreen essential oil is not edible. Relax, an alcohol extract is not pure oil of wintergreen. You wouldn’t consume a whole teaspoon at once, anyway. You would add about a teaspoon of any extract to an entire batch of cookies or to an ice cream recipe.
Make Wintergreen Extract from Sweet or Yellow Birch
~ Fill a small jar about 2/3 of the way with birch twigs chopped into 1/4″ to 1″ lengths OR with twigs you’ve scraped up to expose the green, inner bark
~ Pour in enough 80 to 100 proof vodka to cover the twigs (it’s not that much, you won’t miss it)
~ Put the lid on the jar and store in a dark place at room temperature for at least two to three months, shaking every day or two
~ Taste it occasionally until the wintergreen flavor is strong
You can either strain out the twigs or leave them in the extract.
Off the top of my head, I am unaware of a particular part of the birch tree one may be able to throw at girls while enjoying their Summer Camp experience. Enlightenment always appreciated. ?
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