Birch Tree Medicine ~ June 01 2016
The character of Birch, the way it interacts with the natural world, tells us so much more than just how to use the herb or its medicinal properties. Birch relations tell the story of a bigger medicine... about how to participate in life with nature, on a journey of healing.
Birch ~ Betulaceae
Betula pendula- White or Silver Birch (formerly known as B. alba)
Betula papyrifera- Paper Birch
Betula lenta- Black, Sweet or Cherry Birch
Birch was said to be the first tree after the ice age. Some say it’s the oldest tree. The tree that came before all the others. Weather these statements are true, I don’t really know, but the first of many things Birch certainly is.
In those eroded places, where desolation occurs, after fires and ice melts and landslides, out of seemingly nothing, the Birch trees grow. A pioneer, this is called. Quick to sprout and fast to grow. Paving the way, like a hostess welcoming an entirely new forest to earth’s empty table.
These slender and graceful trees appear so delicate, however, they are remarkably strong. Birch is capable of fostering new life in arctic weather, desolate soil, and harsh conditions. This beautiful tree has many associations with the Sacred Feminine. The English philosopher and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who co-founded the Romantic Movement speaks of Birch as the 'Lady of the Woods' for its remarkable lightness, grace, and elegance, and the fragrant odor it has after rain.
Birch gives birth to new forests, offering a creative container for life to spring forth. In the colder regions from which it comes Birch leaves unfurl near the first of May. This perhaps lends logic to its use as the wood of the Maypole. Birch is a nurse tree to a multitude of fungi and medicinal mushrooms. A sporting host to Chaga and the Birch Polypore. There seems a magical element in Birch with its relationship to creating healthy soil and nurturing life within a forest.
Birch Polypore - Piptoporus betulinus
Every part of this tree has value and purpose. Birch bark is a lovely material that can be woven, folded, and lashed into a great variety of projects. The layered bark is fashioned into paper, baskets and canoes. The sap is made into syrups, beer and wine. Birch wood is a staple material used for making broomsticks and wooden spoons. The inner bark is baked into breads, while the leaves and twigs are rich with aromatic oils.
Medicinal properties of Birch assist with the alleviation of muscle aches and joint pains, mending of broken bones, intermittent fevers, and regaining strength after suffering injury or illness. Birch is wonderfully anti-inflammatory.
The inner bark, twigs and leaves can all be used for medicine. Any of these parts can be used fresh or dried, made into a tea or tincture, ground into powder, or even applied in a poultice. Preparations of Birch are an amazing ally to relieve tissues that are hot, swollen, red and inflamed. This herb is wonderful in its use to reduce pain and swelling of the joints and it is most commonly known in its ability to ease arthritis.
Birch is more than just cooling and soothing. I find it regulating to those with temperature sensitivity, and somewhat warming when needed. It offers strength to those who feel weak, tired, worn out or cold and chilled to the bone. It supports the element of water, quenching fire and excess heat in the body, while helping to move fluids through the kidneys. It is a diuretic and works to reduce edema. It is used to assist the passing of stones in this way. A reliever of kidney irritation and fluid retention, birch offers a watering of the soil to the human body. A washing in the river and a flooding of movement to those stagnant places in our being. In this way birch helps to ease stagnant digestion, and it is particularly helpful for gut inflammation that stems from dysbiosis. Birch allows for the establishment of healthy gut flora and microbiota.
“The white birch is a favorite remedy in northern Europe, where it is abundant. A spiritous beverage is prepared from the sap (through the intervention of yeast) by the peasants, and the sap itself is esteemed valuable in cutaneous disorders, renal and genito-urinary affections, scurvy, gout, rheumatism, and intermittent febrile states. An infusion of the leaves has been employed in rheumatism, skin diseases, gout, and dropsy, while for the rheumatic a bed of fresh leaves is prepared, and is said to occasion profuse diaphoresis. A pulpy mass of the bark, with gunpowder, is employed for scabies. The oil has been used internally in gonorrhoea, and externally in skin eruptions, especially those of an eczematous type.”
-King's American Dispensatory, 1898, Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., and John Uri Lloyd, Phr. M., Ph. D.
I prefer to use the twigs and leaves to the inner bark. Clipping six to eight inches off the tips of branches is much easier to gather and process than the inner bark and it is medicinally just as beneficial. Twigs can be dried along with their leaves and then separated before storage if desired. Bark harvesting runs into ethical territory as it has the potential to seriously damage the life of the tree. The reference of barks in herbal literature typically refers to the inner bark, also known as the cambium layer. If you must, gather barks only from outer branches. Never harvest bark from the main trunk or body of a live tree. Usually the twigs are sufficient enough medicine for me.
If I really want the bark then I am careful to look for branches that seem out of place or on limbs that are too dense, and then I remove the branch entirely before stripping bark from the wood. The general rule is to only cut branches that are less than two inches thick. There are several layers of outer bark that need to be removed until the cambium layer of inner bark is exposed. This is the phloem of the tree and contains xylitol. This inner bark can be scraped from the surface of the wood with a knife length wise, like peeling a carrot. The smaller twigs have no separation between the inner and outer layers of bark and wood, so the entire thing can be used with the least amount of processing.
White birches, such as Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) have a white powdery film on the outer bark that acts as a sunscreen for the tree. Aspen trees have this too. This substance is a wild yeast that can be used in wild fermentation starters, such as with sourdough, a ginger bug, or in birch beer. If you place your hands on the trunk of the tree and rub up and down against the smooth bark you will pick up this powdery white dust on your palms. You can even rub this on your own face and shoulders for a natural sunscreen that works on you too. It helps to deflect the glare sunlight on pale skin. I often stop at the nearest birch or aspen to protect myself from getting sunburned when skiing or snowshoeing. I have also added bits of the outer bark with its wild yeast into a ginger bug starter for making natural soda.
The outer bark of Birch serves many utilitarian purposes including various shelters and the bindings of books, ancient texts, and paper. In Birch forests is it common to find downed trees where the wood is rotting out and yet the bark is still fully intact. The oils in the bark have a preservative quality. The Proto- Germanic association of Birch with the word bergana (aka berkana) means “to protect, preserve”. Articles of historical writing on birch bark have survived for hundreds of years without deteriorating. In fact, the name Birch is likely derived from the Sanscrit word burgha, meaning ‘a tree whose bark is used for writing upon’, and the bark appears to be already inscribed by nature with its distinctive markings.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” - John 1:1
Birch Bark Manuscript of Ancient Panini Sutra, found in Kashmir.
Betulin is a constituent that gives birch its oil based bark perseverance, and makes birch paper last seemingly forever. It is part of what lends to the incredible the quality of rendered Birch oil. Birch oil is quite different from a birch essential oil (which is also amazing, by the way). It is the liquid state of the original super glue, known as Birch tar. It is made from the burnt residue of the outer bark.
Birch tar oil is made from just the bark heated in an oven with little air, much like charcoal. The bark oil, mostly betulin, will sweat out of combustive bark and run into a collection jar that is placed at the bottom of an earth oven. Birch bark tar is the oil that has been somewhat hardened to be sticky and malleable. It was used in northern Europe as a superior mastic as far back as 80,000 years. Birch tar was found on a Neanderthal spear point, with a still notable thumb print. Pieces of chewed birch tar with human teeth marks go back as far as 11,000 years. The early Greeks used birch bark tar to glue broken pots together. They say the Roman Empire was glued together with birch bark tar.
Betulin is a phytochemical that has been laboratory tested and is proven to greatly reduce inflammation both in a test tube and in live human beings, but we already knew that Birch is anti-inflammatory, didn’t we? Rendered Birch tar is not an ideal internal medicine, as it can make one ill, but betulin is found throughout the entire birch tree in compositions that are better for consumption. Betulin can also be found in both Alder and Aspen trees. Another isolated component of birch bark is Betulinic acid. There is recent scientific evidence that Betulinic Acid is anti-tumorous, and may lend some of these medicinal properties to the Chaga fungus that grows on Birch trees.
Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) growing on a Birch.
Black Birch (Betula lenta) with Ploypore fungi.
Black barked birch species, Betula lenta, have higher quantities of Methyl-salicylate then white birches. This compound is what gives this Sweet Birch its wintergreen aroma and taste. Methyl-salicylate is in relation to other salicylate phytochemicals more commonly known to come from willow (Salix), such as salicylic acid, which is an aspirin like anti-inflammatory. The methyl group adds that icy/ hot or burning/cold sensation as is familiar in related menthols. Methyl-salicylate is an excellent topical analgesic, and it is often found in products like Tiger balm or Bengay. Wintergreen oil is most often derived from birch trees rather than the wintergreen plant itself (Gaultheria).
“Gently stimulant, diaphoretic, and astringent. Used in warm infusion wherever a stimulating diaphoretic is required; also in diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera infantum, etc. In decoction or syrup it forms an excellent tonic to restore the tone of the bowels, after an attack of dysentery. Said to have been used in gravel and female obstructions. Oil of birch will produce a drunken stupor, vomiting, and death. It has been used in gonorrhoea, rheumatism, and chronic skin diseases. Dose, 5 to 10 drops.” –Kings American Dispensatory, in reference to Black birch (Betula lenta)
That clean wintergreen fragrance brings a message to begin again. Birch teaches us to start anew. When we feel old and worn out, done and on our last leg, Birch can offer us a broom to sweep up and make life sparkle again. The nature of Birch is to bring new life, cultivate growth, and embody its wisdom. This is the bigger medicine of the Birch Tree.
...and some practical applications ~
Herbal Actions: diuretic, antiseptic, astringent, anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, probiotic, mildly analgesic, general tonic, laxative, vulnerary
Therapeutics: Strengthens general overall vitality. Supports immune functions. Builds blood and increases vital force energy without being overly stimulating. Assists the passing of stones. Fever reducing, especially for the intermittent fever or hot and cold chills. Supports the healing of broken bones. Excellent treatment for achy muscles and arthritic joints. A tea of the leaves and/ or twigs used as a wash on skin irritations such as itchy eczema, open sores, rashes and wounds. For feverish conditions, urinary infections and other internal uses simmer one half cup of leaves or bark in two quarts water for 30 mins. Set aside to cool for another 10 mins before straining. Drink one to two cups up to four times a day for more acute situations. A tincture of the leaves also works wells for infections.
“The leaves have a peculiar, aromatic, agreeable odour and a bitter taste, and have been employed in the form of infusion (Birch Tea) in gout, rheumatism and dropsy, and recommended as a reliable solvent of stone in the kidneys. With the bark they resolve and resist putrefaction. A decoction of them is good for bathing skin eruptions, and is serviceable in dropsy… The oil is astringent, and is mainly employed for its curative effects in skin affections, especially eczema, but is also used for some internal maladies.” – Grieve, in reference to B. pendula
- Betulin Derivatives Effectively Suppress Inflammation in Vitro and in Vivo. US National Library of Medicine: 2016 Feb 26;79(2):274-80. doi: 10.1021/acs.jnatprod.5b00709. Epub 2016 Jan 14. :
- Betulinic Acid for Cancer Treatment and Prevention. US National Library of Medicine: PMC2658785
- King's American Dispensatory, 1898, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., and John Uri Lloyd, Phr. M., Ph. D.
- Making Birch Bark Tar, by: Mike Richardson. http://www.primitiveways.com/
- Radical Botany, Blog post: White or Paper Birch (Betula Papyrifera) February 3, 2013 by Ellen O'Shea
- A Modern Herbal: Mrs. Grieve, Botanical.com