Birch Trees, Medicinal, Tasty and Refreshing
Birch is one of the many trees that is also a useful medicinal herb. As I have stated before, I am using the general term, “herb” to refer to any plant that is medicinally useful, not just plants that are categorized as herbaceous. It is my opinion that confusion over that term has caused many very useful plants, plants that can even save a life when used as first aid, to fall out of common use by many herbalists. Just as people often ask me what the difference is between the herbs you cook with and medicinal herbs, and I answer, “Culinary herbs are simply medicinal herbs that also taste good,” people are often surprised when I recommend oak or pine for a medicinal use. Simply put, not all medicinal herbs are little green things. Some are tall trees.
Sixteen varieties of Birch are used medicinally: Betula alleghaniensis – Yellow Birch, Betula alnoides, Betula ermanii - Gold Birch, Betula glandulosa - Scrub Birch, Betula kenaica - Kenai Birch, Betula lenta - Cherry Birch, Betula nana - Dwarf Birch, Betula nigra - River Birch, Betula occidentalis - Water Birch, Betula papyrifera - Paper Birch, Betula pendula - Silver Birch, Betula platyphylla - White Birch, Betula populifolia - Grey Birch, Betula pubescens - White Birch, Betula schmidtii, Betula utilis - Indian Paper
Of these, four varieties grow in my aera: Betula alleghaniensis (Yellow Birch), Betula cordifolia (Mountain Paper Birch), Betula lenta (Sweet Birch, Black Birch, Cherry Birch), Betula nigra (River Birch)
Birch has long use both in herbal medicine and as a beverage. The tips of birch twigs and the bark can be gathered in the spring and used to make Birch Beer, that was very popular in early America. It has a wintergreen-like flavor. Birch can also be tapped like Maple, to gather the sweet sap as it rises. This quality, made Birch a veritable beer plant, as it supplied its own water, sugar and flavoring. All that was needed to turn it into beer was yeast, and wild yeasts are not only in the air, but would be on the birch twigs themselves. In a time when clean, drinkable water was scarce, such low alcohol beers and wines were essential to survival.
Bark, leaves, twigs, buds and shoots of Birch are used medicinally. Birch is anti-inflammatory and helps break a fever. It stimulates bile. The bark is astringent. The sap is diuretic. The shoots are laxative. Birch has been used for fevers and colds, as an aid in digestion, for skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, rheumatism and arthritis, gout, fluid retention, kidney stones, wounds and sores.
Mrs. Grieves tells us:
Various parts of the tree have been applied to medicinal uses. The young shoots and leaves secrete a resinous substance having acid properties, which, combined with alkalies, is said to be a tonic laxative. 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.
The inner bark is bitter and astringent, and has been used in intermittent fevers.
The vernal sap is diuretic.
Moxa is made from the yellow, fungous excrescences of the wood, which sometimes swell out from the fissures
Gerard wrote of Birch:
Concerning the medicinable use of the Birch tree, or his parts, there is nothing extant either in the old or new writers.
This tree, saith Pliny in his 16th book, 18th chapter, Mirabili candore & tenuitate terribilis magistratum virgis:["Wonderfully white, and striking fear as the flogging-canes of the magistrates"] for in times past the magistrates' rods were made hereof: and in our time also the schoolmasters and parents do terrify their children with rods made of Birch.
It serveth well to the decking up of houses, and banquetting rooms, for places of pleasure, and beautifying of streets in the cross or gang week, and such like.
Culpepper, in his unique style said:
Government and virtues. It is a tree of Venus, the juice of the leaves, while they are young, or the distilled water of them, or the water that comes from the tree being bored with an auger, and distilled afterwards; any of these being drank for some days together, is available to break the stone in the kidneys and bladder and is good also to wash sore mouths.
Plants for A Future lists Birch as:
Anti-inflammatory, cholagogue, diaphoretic. The bark is diuretic and laxative. An oil obtained from the inner bark is astringent and is used in the treatment of various skin afflictions, especially eczema and psoriasis. The bark is usually obtained from trees that have been felled for timber and can be distilled at any time of the year. The inner bark is bitter and astringent, it is used in treating intermittent fevers. The vernal sap is diuretic. The buds are balsamic. The young shoots and leaves secrete a resinous substance which has acid properties, when combined with alkalis it is a tonic laxative. The leaves are anticholesterolemic and diuretic. They also contain phytosides, which are effective germicides. An infusion of the leaves is used in the treatment of gout, dropsy and rheumatism, and is recommended as a reliable solvent of kidney stones. The young leaves and leaf buds are harvested in the spring and dried for later use. A decoction of the leaves and bark is used for bathing skin eruptions.
Euell Gibbons gives us a recipe for Birch Beer in his classic work, Stalking The Wild Asparagus:
Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch into the bottom of a 5 gallon pot. In a large kettle stir in one gallon of honey into 4 gallons of birch sap and boil this mixture for 1o minutes, then pour over the chopped twigs. When cool, strain to remove the now expended twigs and return the liquid to the crock. Spread 1 cake of soft yeast on a slice of toasted rye bread and float this on top of the beer. Cover with a cloth and let it ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle. This will usually take about a week, but it depends somewhat on the temperature. Bottle the beer abd cap it tightly. Store in a dark place, and serve it cold before meals after the weather gets hot. It has a reputation for stimulating the appetite. More than a glass or two at a time is likely to stimulate other things, for this beer has a kick like a mule.
Gibbons’ Birch beer is a traditional and rustic recipe. You may wish to experiment with more modern brewing techniques such as specific yeasts and fermentation air locks to ensure the beer does not spoil. Traditional “soft drink” techniques can also be used to make a naturally fermented carbonated beverage that has only tiny amounts of alcohol. However, the higher alcohol, traditional Birch beer may be stronger medicinally. Either way, it is a very pleasant way to take your medicinal herbs and a fine reason to toast, “To your health!”
Author: Judson Carroll. Judson Carroll is an Herbalist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His weekly articles may be read at http://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/
His weekly podcast may be heard at: Southern Appalachian Herbs (spreaker.com)
He offers free, weekly herb classes: Herbal Medicine 101 (rumble.com)
Judson is the co-author of an important new book based on the 1937 edition of Herbs and Weeds by Fr. Johannes Künzle. This new translation, entitled The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle, with commentary by modern herbalists explores and expands on the work of one of the most important herbalists of the 20th century. Click here to read more about The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle: Southern Appalachian Herbs: Announcing a New Book, The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle
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