Yellow birches
Yellow birches

Birches, Betula spp.

Family: Betulaceae, the Birch Family

Description: Native deciduous trees with catkins, doubly serrate leaves, and a distinctive peeling bark.

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Mountains, mixed forests

Plant Parts Used: Bark, sap

Medicine: Analgesic, immune-supporting, diuretic

Food: Syrup, flour

Other: Common host for many edible and medicinal mushrooms. Used for making canoes, lodges and teepees, paper, and baskets. Bark used as a cast.

Betula allegheniensis
Yellow Birch, Betula allegheniensis

Ray’s first use of birch trees is for firewood, especially because they burn easily. He considers them important “warrior trees,” along with fir and aspen, because they help create the base of a new forest. Ray told me that the inner bark can also be dried and ground into a flour, a good filler if nothing else is available. Birches can also be tapped for syrup, which the Nlaka’pamux and Cherokee used for treating colds and coughs. Birches also host chaga, birch polypores, and often turkey tail mushrooms—three important immune-supporting mushrooms. Terry-Anya said yellow and gray birches often host oyster mushrooms, a popular edible. The twigs or inner bark of paper birch (Betula papyrifera), yellow birch (Betula allegheniensis), and black birch (Betula lenta), can be made into pain-killing, immune-supporting teas ranging from milder teas (paper birch) to stronger teas (black birch). The Menominee and Mohegan used this tea as a tonic. John said that the betulinic acid found in birches has been shown to have healing properties and fight cancer. Deb said that a tea of the young leaves in spring makes an effective diuretic.

Sue told me about a ski trip she led where a friend of hers had sprained her ankle right before embarking on the trip. This woman was experiencing a lot of pain whenever she put weight on that foot, so Sue told her to chew on a tablespoon of the dried inner bark of yellow birch from the last eight inches of young branches. She told her injured friend to chew the dried bark until no flavor remained and to pay attention to time and sensation. Within five minutes, the woman experienced no pain. She told me that yellow birch reduces inflammation and pain, but will not fix the problem. She says to “take it when you need it.” Deb also described that taking a tea or chewing on yellow birch twigs decreases muscle pain and inflammation, but also serves as a pleasant spring tonic.

Birch bark is made into baskets, canoes, paper, teepees, and lodges. John said when he goes out for long hikes, he always makes sure he wears shoes with shoelaces so that he can tie on birch bark to an injured arm as a cast.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.

References:

  • Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
  • Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
  • Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
  • Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.
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