Sweet Birch

Recently I had my first encounter with sweet birch (Betula lenta), also known as black birch.

Sweet birch (Betula lenta) leaves and male catkin
Sweet birch (Betula lenta) leaves and male catkin

The above photo was taken over a month ago when the trees still bore leaves; now all that remains are the catkins (the little pinecone looking thing – actually a male flower cluster) to mark the birch trees. Here you can see them silhouetted against the fall sky.

Sweet birch catkins help identify the tree
Sweet birch catkins help identify the tree

Well, catkins and bark. For those who are good at distinguishing trees by their bark, anyway. I’m still learning. Sweet birch bark is very similar to cherry, but the trees tend to be very tall and thin. They often grow in clusters together, which also helps identify them.

A cluster of sweet birch trees
A cluster of sweet birch trees

Sweet birch has myriad uses both as food, medicine, and fuel. The inner bark is edible and can be dried and ground into a flour. This should only be done with dying or fallen trees, however, as harvesting the inner bark can kill the tree.

Birch trees can be tapped for sap in the spring (like sugar maples and black walnuts), but the sap is less intensely flavored so a greater quantity is needed to cook down for syrup. Luckily, the sap flows fasters and the clustering of trees means it’s easier to harvest the amount needed. Additionally, the birch sap flow starts about a month after the maple one, meaning you can take advantage of both with the same tapping equipment. Birch sap or syrup can also be used to make birch beer. Like, real birch beer. Not commercial soda flavored with a few drops of wintergreen oil.

If you can’t wait until spring, the birch twigs can be harvested and used for a variety of purposes. Some sources even suggest they can just be… eaten. The one nibble I took seemed awfully fibrous for eating straight. One author I read suggested collecting the twigs in the spring and summer, but I can’t see why fall wouldn’t work as well. I harvested some from branches that were broken from recent storms.

The elegant twigs and alternating buds of sweet birch
The elegant twigs and alternating buds of sweet birch

The twigs can be stored in an airtight bag in the refrigerator for at least four weeks. I know this because that’s how long it took for me to get around to processing them! If you scrape the bark with a fingernail, you expose the green inner layer of cambium which smells minty due to its methyl salicylate content.

Sweet birch bark scraped to reveal the green cambium
Sweet birch bark scraped to reveal the green cambium

In addition to methyl salicylate, which is related to salicylic acid (a.k.a. aspirin), birch also contains betulin which in the betulinic acid form is known for its antiretroviral, antinflammatory, and possibly anti-cancer effects. I’m still learning about wild medicinals, so instead of a healing tea or other concoction, I settled on a simple minty flavoring extract.

I followed the birch extract directions I found online here. The author doesn’t say anything about peeling the twigs, but I chose to take the additional time to expose more of the inner bark. Unlike processing some wild edibles (gingko nuts and black walnuts come to mind) processing birch is pleasant. Scraping sweet birch bark off the twigs leaves your fingertips pleasantly mint scented. Alternatively, use the edge of a paring knife (carefully) if your fingernails are weak.

Peeled and chopped birch twigs
Peeled and chopped birch twigs

Cover the chopped twigs with high proof vodka, close the top tight, and set in a dark place to steep. Check them periodically for flavor, and strain out the twigs when the extract seems strong enough. When I cracked open my little jar, I noticed an intense wintergreen aroma after just 24 hours!

Stay tuned next spring for birch tapping adventures!

What are you foraging as the days shorten and the nights grow ever colder?

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