Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Birch- The lady of the woods

Species: Birch- White Birch, Cherry Birch, Black Birch, Sweet Birch, Golden Birch, Paper Birch (Betula alba, B. lenta, B. allaghaniensis, B. papyrifera, b. populifolia)

Parts used: Leaves, bark, twigs, buds, sap
Energetic: Cool, dry
Taste: sweet, aromatic, astringent, bitter
Actions: stimulant, relaxant, diuretic, diaphoretic, tonic, anodyne, vulnerary

Botanical/Ecological description:
Birch- as a tree, is a deceptive name. There are at least 4 species of birch growing in New England, and beyond, with some overlapping and some unique uses, and the White Birch, of Europe, has long been considered the “official” medicine. But, as far as I know all the birch species I’ve listed above are useful medicinally some degree or another. Birches are colonizing trees, and often grow in areas where soil has been disturbed, forests have been logged, along the edges of streams and bogs. It comes in to “heal” the land, hold the soil, and begin the process of ecological succession. Many birch species are not long lived, as soon as other trees grow tall enough to shade them out, the birches decline and begin to die off, leaving their bodies to mulch, and nourish the soil for the next generation of forest trees and plants.
White and paper birch have white papery bark that peels in layers easily. The twigs are dark, and leaves are resinous and triangular shaped.
Grey birch also has white bark, but doesn’t readily peel as does the paper birch.
Black and Yellow birch are both characterized by leaves that grow in pairs from the axils, smooth dark red to yellow bark with lenticels in the twigs and young saplings. Both have the sweet wintergreen smell and flavor to the inner bark. Black birch bark does not peel, but on older trees does begin to crack in to thick plates. Yellow birch bark does begin to peel off in layers, but the layers are finer, golden, and not as paper like as the white paper birch bark. Black birch is extremely common in the east stretching south from SW Maine to Alabama and east to Ohio. Yellow birch tends to grow in more Northern climates- its range extending north into Canada & Nova Scotia. Paper birch grows in northern regions, including to the pacific NW and into Canada. Almost all birch species have strong relationships with fungi of varying kinds- including medicinal Chaga (inodotorus obliqua) and Birch Polypore ( ) found in Europe and one of the medicines Otzi the Ice Man carried with him. Birch wood is not at all rot resistant, but the bark is, and you can often find empty hollow shells of birch bark from which the wood has rotted littering the forest floor.

Symbolic/spiritual description: Birch is known as the “Lady of the Woods.” I do believe this term is most often attributed to the graceful white and grey birches with their branches that lean over gracefully, drooping green sprays of leaves. But I also find the energy of Golden birch as well to be especially feminine- more along the lines of the strong, vibrant, huntress energy of Artemis, with a strength in sexuality and independence, yet still fiercely protective and nurturing when needed. Black or Cherry birch is a bit more ambiguous in its “gender” nature. Some people feeling it to be feminine in energy, others to be more like a young adolescent male (especially in the young saplings.) Birch, as it is a colonizing tree, is the symbol of beginnings, rebirth, birth & labor, and of motherhood. She has also spoken to me deeply about nourishment, motherhood, sacrifice and going down to the BONES of a matter. Her sap (in all species) flows freely and richly in spring- almost like the milk from the breast of the mother, and this sap is deeply nourishing, rich in vitamins and minerals. In addition, the many boney white bodies of birches that often litter the forest floor, to me, look like bones, and also remind me of the self sacrifice the birches make of their bodies to fertilize and nourish the soil for the future. I also find it extremely interesting the birch relationship with fungi, especially medicinal fungi. She gives of her life blood and bones to support these organisms, which in turn provide us with some of the most deeply healing, strengthening and remarkable medicinal properties (Chaga is especially wonderful- read up on it.) These fungi carry the life force of the birches within them, even after the host tree has passed on. Chaga mead is rich with the taste of sweet birch- giving us a reminder of her long lasting nourishment.

The uses of birch are myriad, they vary from species to species somewhat, so it is important to know what properties you are after, and which species you are using. I will start with Black and Yellow birch, which are very similar medicinally speaking. Both contain the aromatic wintergreen smelling methyl salycilate. The bark of both can be used specifically for this compound as a pain relieving ally. Infusion of the bark, elixir or tincture, and infused oil all capture this property of the birch use for muscle soreness, achy joints, mild headaches, sprains and bruises. The bark of cherry and yellow birch is also a tonic and astringent, and is excellent used for loose bowels with nausea, sour stomach, or weak digestion. I use the warm infusion of the bark primarily for this, often mixed with a warming stimulant like ginger or cinnamon depending on the situation. It is also somewhat diaphoretic, and will stimulate a gentle sweat by increasing circulation from the core to the surface and relaxing tension in the tissues of the skin and capillaries. The tincture of the bark itself is nice for mild nausea or gas, but you really need the infusion of the bark to get the most benefit of the tonic properties for weak and watery digestive problems like diarrhea. The bark harvested in the spring is most certainly a stimulating spring tonic- to enliven the blood after a long, sleepy winter. It is rich in mineral nutrients from the running sap, and energetically has an upward moving tendency. It will increase circulation from the core to the surface, tonify the digestive organs and kidneys and nourish the blood with its nutrients.
The inner bark is also considered a tonic for the skin and hair, and helpful to heal & soothe itchy, irritated and weepy sores and rashes. An infusion of birch bark can be used as a wash for poison ivy rash, chicken pox/measles, herpes/shingles, or other slow to heal sores. As oils can sometimes spread these types of rashes around, I’d be cautious with the use of infused oil here, but the infusion as a wash or bath will be pain relieving and healing. I have included black birch bark and leaf infused oil in salve for cold sores, along with some other herbs, and have received very good feedback.
Note: the essential oil of sweet birch is available, and is an excellent pain reliever when used topically. Please note that the essential oil is EXTREMELY concentrated and has high levels of methyl salycilates in it, which can be toxic in moderate doses, even topically. Please use the essential oil only topically, and never directly on the skin undiluted. And probably a good idea not to use it daily for extended periods of time over large portions of the body. (I.e point tenderness vs taking a bath in it!) There have been cases of illness and even death from young people using excessive amounts of an icy hot rub for muscle soreness which contained methyl salycilates. Granted this is usually a synthetic concentrated form, but methyl salycilates are significantly toxic enough to warrant a warning in all the old literature on the plants containing them, and so I pass that on to you.

The leaves of both black and yellow birch are a specific and effective remedy for the kidneys, being both diuretic and soothing to irritation. It is used to mitigate a tendency to form kidney stones and gravel. Large kidney stones with pain, fever and blood in the urine need to be addressed by a medical professional, but birch leaves can be used as a preventive for those who tend to gravel formation, and a soothing tea for the remaining irritation. Useful and soothing also in cystitis and irritation of bladder, urethra and kidneys in self limiting UTI. Should be combined with other anti-infective herbs to address the infection.

White and paper birch – also has a long history in Europe as a kidney remedy, much as explained above for black and yellow birch. Here again, it is the leaves used for kidney irritation and gravel. The bark of the white and paper birches contains betulin, a substance being studied in many places for its immune boosting effects, its activity against viral and bacterial organisms, and is especially helpful in skin disorders when used topically. Here you would use the bark tea (inner and outer barks) or decoction as a wash and internally. The bark of these species is diuretic and acts on the kidneys as the leaves do, being soothing and softening to gravel. It is mentioned for “dropsy” which is essential water retention and edema. Matt Wood mentions its use as a hair tonic- a young woman who used nettle and birch bark tea as a hair wash improved the texture, thickness and health of the hair. I haven’t tried this, but certainly worth giving a whirl. Birch bark is also toning and astringent topically, and while being most well known for skin disorders, rashes, eczema, herpes/pox, I have also seen it used in formulas (commericial) for cellulite.

Sap of the birches is well known as a nutritive tonic- and is tapped in the spring from the trees, which run after the maples. Black and golden birch will have a stronger wintergreen flavor, but all the birches may be tapped. The sap is often fermented, but can be boiled into syrup, but requires more sap per gallon of syrup than does maple.

Fungus: Keep in mind that the fungi that grow on birches concentrate many of the compounds in birch, including betulin. These mushrooms are particularly strong medicines for the immune system. If you are lucky enough to find them growing on birches in significant quantity, they are beautiful medicines. Chaga and birch polypore are easy to ID and are safe to use. But do go with someone familiar with them to learn about them in detail.


JWL said...

Thanks for this! I've been using chaga decoctions as a base for my meads for a while now, and I absolutely love it. Not familiar with using polypore though, would love to learn more about it.

Lucinda said...

Lovely post with loads of great information, thanks! Birch is one of my favourite trees, we mainly get the silver birch here in the UK which is very elegant and feminine. I haven't used the fungi, I wonder if they grow here as well, will do some research. x

Mommy Machine said...

This was a very nice post. The page is wonderful all together. I use sweet birch in a hot bath. Words can not tell how lovely it feels and the feeling lingers after you get out of the bath as well....

Shinywen said...

I will always remember walking through the woods of Pennsylvania with my grandfather. He would find a birch tree and snap off a small twig for chewing. Then we'd return to his home and enjoy homemade PA birch beer =)

Renée A.D. said...

Thank you for the thorough post! I like how you discussed the differences (medicinally) between the difference species. Most sources only discuss Betula spp.
I live in Cascadia now. But man, I miss the New England birch forests a TON!

Anonymous said...

Just now learning about the incredible benefits of the Chaga mushroom, and living here in Nova Scotia, I know I can find enough to supply myself and many others...


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