Birch (Betula sp.) is one of the first trees I think of when I think of home. It’s white peeling bark mottled with black oval-shaped spots are exquisitely beautiful. These dark patches on the exterior often resemble eyes, and I can’t help but gaze into them as I walk through the forest with my dogs. These tree eyes never seem to peel off when the rest of the bark does. This symbolizes an important lesson to me; to always remain faithful to the truths I see, even as years pass and layers are shed.
The First Paper
As a young person, I always gathered the bark that shed from the trunk of Birch tree and wrote messages to a friend of mine who lived next door. The bark curled up perfectly, like an ancient scroll with all of my misshapen letters within it. It was in fact, the very first paper for many first peoples. It’s a canvas for language and the written word in ancient ways.
Birch is one of the first tree successions after disturbance, leading the rest of trees alongside of Poplar species. This bravery to spring up as one of the very first trees is veracious. When you see a piece of land that has been completely cleared, the pain can be overwhelming. Seeing young Birch trees come forth in growth after many years is a kind of renewal you feel in the deepest places.
Birch provides some of the best tools to start a fire with. With nothing but a knife and a single layer of bark, you can create all of the fine materials you need to light a fire with a sparker. You simply take your knife and slide it along the birch bark. Do not cut the bark, slide it the opposite way you would if you were cutting, dragging the blade.
As you get a rhythm for this, you will create a dust from the bark that is absolutely perfect for that first spark of flame. Slowly work your way up and add bigger and bigger pieces of the peeled bark over the dust, almost creating a cave. Eventually you can add smaller twigs. You will have a created a wonderful environment for your fire to begin.
Birch bark itself catches flame like nothing else. Better than paper, better than anything I’ve seen. It’s a sight to see as the bark bubbles up and erupts into orange waves of flame. If you look at the inner layer of birch bark when it is freshly cut, there is a beautiful orange layer that reminds me of the colour of fire.
It also is a host for a common polypore mushroom called a Tinder Polypore (Fomes fomentarius). This mushroom has many medicinal properties, but is also a great carrier of fire. In ancient times, there were no lighters or matches to start fire. Once a fire was lit, every precaution was taken to make sure that fire continued on. In between different sites of people, they would use the tinder polypore to carry the ember of the fire. It is able to hold the ember and not put it out, or make it grow. It simply holds space for it to continue on without the need for any additional tinder. This remarkable capability is beyond any other material. It can then be placed into another pile of tinder to start a new fire.
Birch is a host to some of the most powerful medicinal mushrooms in my life. It is host to the Birch Polypore (Fomitopsis betulina), Tinder Polypore (Fomes fomentarius), or horse hoof polypore and Chaga (Inonotus obliquus). This symbiotic relationship between the Birch and these mushrooms are totally exclusive and unique to it. The betulinic acid within the birch seems to give itself to these mushrooms as they form, giving them incredible abilities to heal a myriad of common problems in our bodies.
Chaga has received a lot of attention for it’s medicinal properties. It has anti-cancer, anti-tumour, and anti-inflammatory compounds that make it an incredibly strong medicine. It is so pursued out in the environment that recently United Plant Savers deemed it on the watch list for endangerment. This is because of the unique way that Chaga grows, and the ignorance of everyday gatherers. When it comes to fungi, the mushroom itself is typically the fruiting body of the organism, where as the mycelium is the “tree” so to speak. This unique function of fungi allows quite liberal harvesting among foragers, just as picking apples from a tree isn’t going to hurt the tree.
However, when it comes to Chaga, it is the whole organism itself. It isn’t merely the fruiting body. So when someone takes the whole chunk off of a tree, it won’t be able to grow back. When harvesting, we should always aim to never take more than 1/4 of the organism, and allow it to grow for many years after, as it is a very slow grower.
As my old teacher mentioned, Chaga is often high up in trees away from the reach of people. This itself speaks of the way we use it’s medicine: it shouldn’t be accessed all of the time, only when we absolutely need it. I hope that people begin to understand the very essence of it’s nature and how finite it is. Knowledge is the answer to changing this exploitative behaviour. It is clear that as a human whole, we need to learn about every species that we are interested in collecting and utilizing in our daily lives before we collect it.
Birch Polypore has many of the same compounds as Chaga. It is also much more abundant on Birch trees than Chaga. It has complex polysaccharides that have wonderful immune enhancing abilities. The betulinic acid that the fungus potentiates from the host Birch has been proven to initiate the death of cancer cells. Along with many other uses, this fungus can be used as an anti-septic bandage, anti-inflammatory, and has shown a lot of promise as an anti-viral.
This fungus was made famous with the discovery of a 5000 year old mummy preserved in ice in the Italian Alps. Named Otzi, this mummy was found with a necklace around his neck that had the Birch polypore fungus on it. In the autopsy, he was found to have a parasitic intestinal worm called a whipworm in his body. Ironically enough, this worm can be cured with polypolenic acid which is one of the chemicals present in the Birch Polypore. It was theorized that he was carrying it as a means of protection. The fact that this fungus was so important so long ago that this man carried it around his neck speaks volumes about it’s importance in our past, as well as our present world. We often make tea with this mushroom and blend it with others like Reishi and Turkey Tail and chai spices. It’s really nourishing in the fall or on a cold day.
The sap of Birch can be harvested right after you finish maple sap harvests. It tastes like the best water you’ve ever had and feels really cleansing in the spring season anew. It requires more sap for syrup, about 80:1 ratio rather than 40:1 that Maple sap has. This need for an abundance of sap usually results in me just drinking the sap as is. It is such a gift all on its own. However, a friend of mine made Birch syrup commercially and he said it was incredible. If you have enough, it is certainly a worthy venture.
If you are in a survival situation and have no container to boil and drink water from, Birch bark is the perfect ingredient for a solid container. It must come from a living tree in order to work. It is quite a balance to get the process just right. It is easy to tear the bark if you aren’t patient. Take your time with this, and it will turn out. Here’s a video on how to do it. Try soaking the bark in warm water overnight to increase pliabilit
A friend of mine who does a lot of wood working and carving said that birch is his favourite species to work with. He said there is no wood that is so hard and so soft all at once. It is the perfect wood to carve spoons, bowls, etc. He said it was light and yet quite durable, with a unique elegance to it.
Birch bark was often used as a roof for primitive shelters. It’s ability to deter water is why it is so perfect for this purpose. Large pieces were used on the tops of shelters, layered in a pattern that’s similar to the way that shingles are laid.
Have you ever thought about eating a tree? Birch has many different edible parts, including it’s leaves, catkins, inner bark, and buds. The leaves in early spring can be mixed into a salad with other veggies. They have a nice flavour that is kind of like spinach with a slight bitterness. They can also be sauted and added to all kinds of dishes. The catkins appear in spring and can be dried and ground into a flour. The inner bark, which is the layer of bark beneath the outer surface, can also be stripped off of the tree for food.
When harvesting inner bark, select a tree that has recently fallen because creating a wound like this can make the tree vulnerable to disease and insects. Or you can simply harvest a small branch that will not harm the tree. This can be fried up in a pan, eaten raw, or can be dried and ground up into a flour. These are amazing food sources that are dependable, abundant, and common in the northern landscape.
Birch is an amazing ally in restoration, food, medicine, shelters, and provides remarkable gifts for starting fires. Even in the wettest conditions, you can rely on Birch to give you the tools you need to stay warm, dry, and cook your food. Birch is host to fungi that are some of the most powerful immunity enhancers accessible to people in Northern Ontario. In times that are uncertain, Birch’s spirit remains as it does in landscapes that have experienced devastation…They are pioneers of growth and gifts for all things.