In Chippewa, wi’gwass’tig, white birch is not only edible and medicinal, but is traditionally used in many other ways from making canoes to baskets to birch bark biting. I think of it as the craftiest tree!
White birch is sometimes called paper birch or canoe birch after two of its many utilizations. Are you curious How the Birch Tree Got It’s Burns? Click that link for the Ojibwe legend. Then the caption on the photo to the left will make sense.
Edible Uses of White Birch
The twigs and leaves make for tea with a subtle wintergreen flavor (yellow and black birches have a stronger wintergreen taste). I’ve heard of the seedpods and inner bark also being used for tea.
White birch can be tapped like maple, and the sap is about half as sweet as maple. Robin says not to use a store-bought tap but to cut off a branch that’s about 2″ in diameter and hang a bucket from this because, you could say, the birch is a bleeder. Tapping is a wound and you can overdo it and kill the tree. The sap can be boiled down to a syrup or even fermented into a craft beer or vinegar.
The edible catkins (they have a bitter, piney taste) can be used as a leavening agent.
Chaga and birch (polypore) bracket both grow on white birch and they have edible, medical and other uses of their own. I noticed one of the guys on Life Below Zero harvesting birch bracket to burn to repel mosquitoes – I’ll have to try that!
Sap Rich in Vitamin C
Medicinal Uses of White Birch
White Birch is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Astringent, Cooling, Diaphoretic, and Diuretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes boiled inner bark for a skin poultice, sometimes including the leaves. In the mid-90s there was research related to birch bark shrinking melanomas in mice. I wonder what came of that?
Alternative Uses of “Canoe Birch”
The inner bark makes a brownish red dye.
There are countless items traditionally made with white birch, so I scoured YouTube for interesting videos of a few of the most common:
Not only do humans have countless uses for white birch, its wild allies include mammals like eastern cottontail, snowshoe hare, eastern chipmunk, red squirrel, beaver, porcupine, white-tailed deer, and moose. Its feathered friends include ruffled grouse, yellow-bellied sapsucker, purple finch and common redpoll; and black-capped chickadee and warblers feed on invasive birch leaf minor larvae.
If you collect a catkin just before it falls, in late summer, and overwinter the seed in your fridge, you can grow a birch tree from seed yourself. Here’s a WikiHow on the process. They are also available at native plant nurseries. I planted two birches, in the summer of 2021, in the middle-rear of my front window view. I can’t wait until they are bigger and the white bark stands out in contrast to all the green around it. That should happen in 3 years. I got mine from ONPlants.ca.
It’s a diuretic.
Birch water stains.
Tearing the bark off can kill the tree. Please do not cut bark from living trees.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
#ads in References
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Trees of Ontario
Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants
The Path to Wild Food