The gifts of birch have been passed down for many generations over many centuries. They come to us through a long line of healers, hunters, boat builders and weavers – those that held a deep connection to the earth.
The name of this tree is an ancient one; probably derived from the Sanskrit bhurga, “a tree whose bark is used for writing upon”. Certainly it has been used for this. Some of its common names are sweet birch, paper birch, birch bark, and white birch. The scientific circles know it as Betula alba.
When some people think of birch bark, bark canoes immediately come to mind. Certainly the waterproof bark lends itself well to create canoes and other types of boats which indigenous people around the world still make today. Its uses extend much further beyond that, however, to coverings for shelters, sewn containers and woven baskets as well as coloring hides while tanning. The volatile oils in the bark make it an ideal material for fire starting. The wood is valued by fine woodworkers around the world. The inner bark and leaves are used as emergency food in addition to having significant healing qualities. Birch is an ideal tree to know for a survival situation.
While we use the leaves, twigs, wood and even the roots of the tree, the bark is arguably the most widely used part of the tree and certainly requires the greatest skill to gather ethically. It is important to keep in mind that removing the inner layer of bark from any live tree can irreversibly harm that tree. Removing the inner layer prevents the flow of sap, which will eventually kill the tree if enough bark is removed. You should always look for downed trees from which to harvest the bark before cutting into a live tree.
Bark harvesting occurs in spring or early summer. We start by carefully making a shallow vertical slit that only cuts through the outer layer. Join this with two shallow cuts around the circumference of the tree, one at the top of the vertical slit and the other at the bottom of it. If this is done well, the bark almost peels itself. At home, lay the bark out and place weights at the corners so it dries flat. When we are ready to use it, the bark may be cut with shears to the size and shape needed and gently warmed to shape.
While the utilitarian uses are vast, the medicinal uses of birch are as intriguing and effective as they are varied. We use birch bark, twigs, as well as the fresh leaves as tea to make an effective pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. A glycoside in birch breaks down to produce methyl salicylate, the natural forerunner of synthetic aspirin. Its history of pain relief goes back for centuries. Native Americans used birch to relieve headaches and the pain of rheumatism, aching or swollen joints, while the poultices were used to heal burns, wounds and bruises.
As a diaphoretic, birch helps produce perspiration to cool the body and reduce fever, helping to ease the discomforts of cold and flu symptoms. Birch bark is considered an effective, natural herbal diuretic that promotes urine flow and has a long history of use in supporting our bodies to heal from urinary tract infections, cystitis, prostatitis and kidney stones.
When used topically in salves, poultices and liniments, birch provides great relief for bruises, burns, eczema, wounds, skin eruptions, rheumatism and psoriasis. It also has been used by Native Americans for centuries in a tea and other beverages to treat stomach and intestinal problems such as diarrhea and dysentery as the tannins in the bark are astringent. It is still an effective remedy today.
In 1995, research at the University of Illinois showed that betulinic acid in birch killed melanoma cells in mice. Three German studies concluded that betulinic acid showed anti-tumor activity against cells from certain types of nervous system cancers in children. Additionally,two compounds in birch – betulinic acid and betulin – have shown significant antiviral activity. Researchers have claimed that betulinic acid slows the growth of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Betulin and betulinic acid also display some anticancer and antitumor properties. Though neither is a stand-alone cure, these compounds give us another reason to include birch in healing remedies and help to validate its history of use from ancient times until today.
While we continue to add to our knowledge of this amazing tree, we must remember to take the time to simply sit in the speckled shade of the “ Lady of the Woods” gazing skyward to admire her dancing leaves on a warm summer’s day.