From The Herb Garden: The Many Benefits Of Birch

A tree that garnered ancient appreciation, birch offers a wealth of benefits for the modern grower or forager, from syrup to tea and more!

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by Bevin CohenJanuary 5, 2022
PHOTO: M J/Pixabay

Celtic mythology considered the birch a tree of beginnings often thought to symbolize renewal and purification. It’s interesting to note the tree is a pioneer species, and one of the first saplings to become established in an area recently cleared by fire.

Surely the Celts observed birch’s proclivity to thrive in these environments. This tenacious behavior no doubt helped to shape their beliefs about the tree.

Birches are deciduous, hardwood trees widespread across the northern hemisphere, with more than 60 identified species. And the trees provide a wide range of applications including timber, to make paper, for crafting medicines and as ornamentals. 

Many species are short-lived, but they are still a welcome addition to the landscape. From syrup to birch leaf tea, these decorative trees offer both beauty and functionality to those that either grow or forage their wares.

In the Kitchen

You can eat many parts of the birch tree, though you’ll find some parts more palatable than others. Harvest young leaves to consume fresh or steamed. Same with the small twigs—though you may need to cook them a bit longer. 

Indigenous foragers have long utilized the inner bark to make a non-rising flour. The flavor is reminiscent of wintergreen. And the sweet birch, Betula lenta, is widely thought to be the most flavorful. 

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Much like sugar maples, birch trees can be tapped in the spring for sap collection. This sap is loaded with micronutrients and can be enjoyed as is or boiled down into syrup. Due to birch sap’s low sugar content, it takes approximately 100 gallons of birch sap to make just 1 gallon of syrup.

Compare this to maple’s 40:1 production ratio and you’ll understand why birch syrup fetches such a high price on the market. It often sells for more than $200 per gallon!


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In the Apothecary

Birch trees offer a wide range of uses and benefits for the herbal medicine maker. The tree has long been utilized for its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and astringent qualities. 

Boil the young leaves in water to create a potent mouthwash to help prevent gum disease and bad breath. You can use this same decoction as a facewash to help soothe irritated skin and problematic acne. 

Twigs steeped in 100 proof vodka make a tincture useful for relieving sore and tired muscles. This anti-inflammatory action derives in part due to methyl salicylates found in the wood. These same compounds give birch that familiar wintergreen flavor. 


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Growing Birch

You can find birch trees growing in temperate and boreal climates across the northern hemisphere.

Typically these trees don’t live long, but lifespans vary from one species to the next. Yellow birch, B. alleghaniensis, can live well over 100 years. White birch, B. papyrafera, however, may only live to be 40 to 50 years old. 

Generally speaking, you can grow these trees quite easily. They prefer full sun but also enjoy moist, cool soil. Try to place the trees on the east or north side of your property so that your home can provide afternoon shade. 

Birch are thirsty trees and will need to be well-watered in order to thrive. Consider using wood chips or leaf compost to mulch around the base of the trees to help conserve soil moisture. 

With their striking appearance, birch trees can be enjoyed as an excellent focal point for your landscape design. Or you can use them to create an intriguing visual effect along walkways or garden paths. 

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