Birch

Betula spp.

Betula pendula - European White or Silver Birch (also known as B. alba)
Betula papyrifera - Paper Birch, American White Birch
Betula lenta - Black, Sweet or Cherry Birch

There are over 50 species of Birch (Betula) throughout Europe and Asia, and 20 additional species native to North America.

Common Names

White birch, silver birch, weeping birch, downy birch

Parts Used

Leaves, twigs, inner bark

Herbal Actions

Stimulating diaphoretic, diuretic, antiseptic, astringent, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, laxative, vulnerary

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Birch ~ the Pioneer

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Birch was said to be the first tree after the ice age. Some say it’s the oldest tree. The tree that came before all the others. Whether these statements are true, I don’t really know, but Birch is certainly the first tree of many things. 

In those eroded places, where desolations occur, after fires and ice melts and landslides, out of seemingly nothing, the Birch trees grow. A pioneer species, this is called. Quick to sprout and fast to grow. Paving the way, like a hostess welcoming an entirely new forest to earth’s empty table. It is capable of fostering new life in arctic weather, desolate soil, and harsh conditions. Birch gives birth to new forests, offering a creative container for life to spring forth.  

These slender and graceful trees appear so delicate, however, they are remarkably strong. This beautiful tree has many associations with the Sacred Feminine. The English philosopher and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who co-founded the Romantic Movement speaks of Birch as the 'Lady of the Woods' for its remarkable lightness, grace, and elegance, and the fragrant odor it has after rain. In Celtic mythology, Birch trees are called the "White Lady of the Forest," and represented femininity, grace, purity, family, protection, healing and new life. Birch is also found in the mythology of Native Americans, Norse, Russian, and Siberian cultures. All of the regions where you find Birch trees, there are stories and legends surrounding it. 

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Birch leaves unfurl near the first of May and the wood came to be used as the Maypole that is danced around on May 1st. Oftentimes the Birch was decorated as the Maypole while it still alive and rooted in the ground, because it was considered sacred. Birch is the national tree of Finland, Sweden and Russia, and the state tree of New Hampshire. The Czech word for the month of March, "Březen," comes from their word for Birch, because Birch trees flower during March in that region.

Every part of this tree has a valuable use. Traditional peoples use birch in food, medicine, and craft. Birch bark is a lovely material that can be woven, folded, and lashed into a great variety of projects. The outer bark is fashioned into paper, baskets and canoes. The inner bark is edible cooked or raw, and can be dried and ground into flour as the Native Americans once did. The sap is made into syrups, beer and wine. Birch wood is a beautiful pale color, with a fine grain and satin-like sheen. It is a staple material used in the making of broomsticks and wooden spoons. Birch is a useful firewood, because it burns well even when frozen or freshly hewn, due to the natural oils it contains. The inner bark, leaves and twigs are rich with these aromatic oils and are used as medicine. Birch is also a nurse tree to a multitude of fungi and medicinal mushrooms. It is a host tree for Chaga mushrooms and the Birch Polypore, and also helps the bacterial health of the forest soil. There seems a magical element in Birch and its relationship within the forest ecosystem.

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“The white birch is a favorite remedy in northern Europe, where it is abundant. A spiritous beverage is prepared from the sap (through the intervention of yeast) by the peasants, and the sap itself is esteemed valuable in cutaneous disorders, renal and genito-urinary affections, scurvy, gout, rheumatism, and intermittent febrile states. An infusion of the leaves has been employed in rheumatism, skin diseases, gout, and dropsy, while for the rheumatic a bed of fresh leaves is prepared, and is said to occasion profuse diaphoresis. A pulpy mass of the bark, with gunpowder, is employed for scabies. The oil has been used internally in gonorrhoea, and externally in skin eruptions, especially those of an eczematous type.”

-King's American Dispensatory, 1898

Medicinal Uses

Birch strengthens general overall vitality. It offers strength to those who feel weak, tired, worn out, cold and chilled to the bone. It can help one regain strength after suffering injury or illness. Birch is a powerful anti-inflammatory and analgesic, with antimicrobial, astringent, diuretic, and diaphoretic properties. Fresh Birch twig tea in the spring is invigorating, and increases circulation without being overly stimulating. It has been used traditionally as a remedy for achy muscles and arthritic joints, as a diuretic for urinary complaints, and a treatment for itchy, scaly skin conditions like eczema. Birch tree bark, especially Black Birch, has a distinctive wintergreen smell due to the natural methyl salicylate that it contains. This constituent is responsible for Birch's ability to alleviate pain and inflammation. The stimulating, menthol-like scent of birch gives you the feeling of opening up. This action helps to move the fluids of the body, which helps stimulate the kidneys, liver and lymphatic system. This is why Birch has such an clearing affect on the skin, because internally it stimulates healthy elimination of cellular waste. As a diuretic, it helps reduce edema, and has been used to assist the passing of stones. A reliever of kidney irritation and fluid retention, Birch offers a watering of the soil of the human body. Birch washes through you like a river, moving its waters through the stagnant places in our being. As a circulatory stimulant, Birch eases weak digestion, and helps reduce gut inflammation as an astringent.

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The inner bark, twigs and leaves can all be used for medicine. Any of these parts can be used fresh or dried, made into a tea or tincture, ground into powder, or even applied in a poultice. All preparations of Birch are an amazing ally to relieve tissues that are hot, swollen, red and inflamed.

Inner Bark

  • Internally - A tea of the inner bark has been used traditionally as a remedy for achy muscles, arthritic joints, and itchy skin conditions like eczema. It can also help at the onset of a fever or with intermittent fevers.

  • Externally - A strong infusion can be used to reduce pain and swelling of the joints, stiffness from arthritis, and inflammatory skin conditions. A poultice can be used to help with boils. 

Leaves

  • Internally - A tea of the leaves treats inflammation and infections of the genitourinary tract, rheumatic complaints, and atopic eczema (chronic internal origin).

  • Externally - A strong infusion can be used for soothing tired muscles, milk crust and hair loss from fungal infections. A poultice can be used to help with boils.

“The leaves have a peculiar, aromatic, agreeable odour and a bitter taste, and have been employed in the form of infusion (Birch Tea) in gout, rheumatism and dropsy, and recommended as a reliable solvent of stone in the kidneys. With the bark they resolve and resist putrefaction. A decoction of them is good for bathing skin eruptions, and is serviceable in dropsy… The oil is astringent, and is mainly employed for its curative effects in skin affections, especially eczema, but is also used for some internal maladies.”
– M. Grieve

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Preparation & Dosage

Internal Use

  • Fresh Twig Infusion - Harvest small twigs from a Birch tree before the leaves come in early Spring. Chop coarsely to help release the fragrant oils, place in a quart-size mason jar, add boiling water, stir, cover with a lid, and let steep overnight. Strain in the morning, drink cool or warm. Keeps refrigerated for up to 3 days. 

  • Dried Bark Tea (you can also add in small dried twigs) - Put 1/2 cup of bark/twigs in a medium-size saucepan, add 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for another 10 minutes. Strain, and drink 1-2 cups daily for general health. For acute situations such as feverish conditions or urinary infections drink 1-2 cups up to 4 times per day until symptoms subside. 

  • Dried Leaf Tea - Put 1/2 cup dried leaves in a quart-size mason jar, add boiling water, stir, cover with a lid, and let steep a minimum of 30 minutes. Strain and drink immediately. 

  • Leaf Tincture - A tincture of the leaves also works well for infections. 

External Use

  • Skin Wash - Combine dried leaves and twigs/bark to make a strong infusion. Add 1/2 cup of each to 2 quarts of water and follow the Dried Bark Tea instructions. Use this concentrated liquid as a skin wash for eczema, fungal infections, rashes, and minor wounds. If you don't have both leaves and twigs & bark, you can use either one. 

  • Poultice - Applying either the twigs & bark or leaves directly to the skin can be very effective for skin irritations, minor wounds and boils.

    • Bark/twigs - if you want to use the bark or twigs as a poultice, you will need to grind it down to a powder. Moisten the powder with hot water until it makes a paste. Apply the paste directly to the inflicted area and cover with plastic wrap to keep the moisture in. Remove after 30 minutes and reapply another poultice.

    • Leaves - the dried leaves should be chopped finely and steeped in a small amount of hot water (1/4 cup herb to 1/4 cup hot water) until softened. After 10-15 minute you can add the mixture to a mortar and pestle to masticate together to release more of the plant compounds. When a paste-like consistency, place the herb paste directly onto the inflicted area and cover with plastic wrap to keep the moisture in. Remove after 30 minutes and reapply another poultice.

Contraindications

No reports of adverse effects if used properly.

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Harvesting

I prefer to use the twigs and leaves to the inner bark. Clipping six to eight inches off the tips of branches is much easier to gather and process than the inner bark and it is just as beneficial medicinally. Twigs can be dried along with their leaves and then separated before storage if desired. Bark harvesting runs into ethical territory as it has the potential to seriously damage the life of the tree. The reference of barks in herbal medicine typically refers to the inner bark, also known as the cambium layer. If you must, gather barks only from outer branches. Never harvest bark from the main trunk or body of a live tree, as this could be fatal to the tree. Usually, the twigs are sufficient enough medicine for most people.
 

If I really want the bark, then I am careful to look for branches that seem out of place or on limbs that are too dense, and then I remove the branch entirely before stripping bark from the wood. The general rule is to only cut branches that are less than two inches thick. There are several layers of outer bark on birch that need to be removed until the cambium layer of inner bark is exposed. This is the phloem of the tree and contains xylitol. This inner bark can be scraped from the surface of the wood with a knife length wise, like peeling a carrot. The smaller twigs have no separation between the inner and outer layers of bark and wood, so the entire thing can be used with the least amount of processing. If you happen to find a freshly fallen tree, these are opportunities to go ahead and strip off all the bark freely. 

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Nature's Sunscreen

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White birches, such as Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) have a white powdery film on the outer bark that acts as a sunscreen for the tree. Aspen trees have this too. This substance is a wild yeast that can be used in wild fermentation starters, such as with a ginger bug or birch beer.  If you place your hands on the trunk of the tree and rub up and down against the smooth bark you will pick up this powdery white dust on your palms. You can even rub this on your own face and shoulders for a natural sunscreen that works on you too. It helps to deflect the glare of snow on skin. I often stop at the nearest birch or aspen to protect myself from getting burned when skiing or snowshoeing. I have also added bits of the outer bark with its wild yeast into ginger bug starters for making natural sodas.

Birch Bark Books

The outer bark of Birch serves many utilitarian purposes including the binding of books, ancient texts, and of course, paper. In Birch forests is it common to find downed trees where the wood is rotting out and yet the bark is still fully intact. The oils in the bark have a preservative quality. The Proto-Germanic association of Birch with the word bergana (aka berkana) means “to protect, preserve”. Articles of historical writing on birch bark have survived for hundreds of years without deteriorating. In fact, the name Birch is likely derived from the Sanscrit word burgha, meaning ‘a tree whose bark is used for writing upon’. It’s as though the bark appears to be already inscribed by nature with its distinctive markings.

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A birch bark manuscript from Kashmir of the Rupavatara, dated 1663

Betulin & Birch tar

Betulin is a constituent that gives Birch its oil-based bark perseverative, and makes birch paper last seemingly forever. It is part of what lends to the incredible the quality of rendered Birch oil. Birch oil is quite different from Birch essential oil. Birch oil is the liquid state of Birch tar, nature's original super glue. It is made from the burnt residue of the outer bark that is heated in an oven with little air, much like charcoal. The bark oil, mostly betulin, will sweat out of combusted bark and run into a collection jar that is placed at the bottom of an earth oven. Birch bark tar is this oil that has been somewhat hardened to be sticky. It was used in northern Europe as a superior mastic as far back as 80,000 years. Birch tar was found on a Neanderthal spear point, with a still notable thumb print. Pieces of chewed birch tar with human teeth marks go back as far as 11,000 years. The early Greeks used Birch tar to glue broken pots together, archaeologists say the Roman Empire was glued together with birch tar from how often it has been found in their artifacts. 

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This birch tar-handled tool was made by a Neanderthal 50,000 years ago

Betulin is a phytochemical that has been laboratory tested and is proven to greatly reduce inflammation both in a test tube and in live human beings, but we already knew that Birch is anti-inflammatory, didn’t we? Rendered Birch tar is not an ideal internal medicine, as it can make one ill, but betulin is found throughout the entire birch tree in compositions that are better for consumption. Betulin can also be found in both Alder and Aspen trees. Another isolated component of birch bark is Betulinic acid. There is recent scientific evidence that Betulinic Acid is anti-tumorous, and may lend some of these medicinal properties to the Chaga fungus that grows on Birch trees.

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Photo of Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) growing on a Birch tree

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Photo of Black Birch (Betula lenta) with

Polypore fungi

Black barked birch species, Betula lenta, have higher quantities of Methyl-salicylate then the white birches. This compound is what gives Sweet Birch its wintergreen aroma and taste. Methyl-salicylate is in relation to other salicylate phytochemicals more commonly known to come from Willow (Salix), such as salicylic acid, which is an aspirin like anti-inflammatory. The methyl group adds that icy/ hot or burning/cold sensation as is familiar in related menthols. Methyl-salicylate is an excellent topical analgesic, and it often isolated and found in products like Tiger balm or Bengay. Wintergreen oil is most often derived from birch trees rather than the Wintergreen plant itself (Gaultheria).
 

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References