Birch Trees: Natural Medicine in Your Backyard

If you have access to birch trees, take advantage of their medicinal properties by using the techniques outlined in this article.

Mushrooms sprouting from a birch tree

In every form, birch makes an excellent tonic and detoxifier, mainly working on the urinary system to remove waste products, as in kidney or bladder stone, gravel, gout, and rheumatism.

Photo by Fotolia/Erni

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Alternative medicine and natural healing have reached into every facet of our lives. Lack of confidence in commercial medicine and an interest in getting closer to nature have made formerly-considered “alternative” treatments mainstream. Backyard Medicine (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009), by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal, offers fascinating home remedies for everyday ailments. In the following excerpt, learn how to make use of the medicinal properties in birch trees.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Backyard Medicine.

Birch Trees

Betula pendula, B. pubescens, B. lenta

Birch has a multitude of historical uses but is less familiar for its undoubted medicinal properties. The sap makes a clear and refreshing drink that can be preserved as a wine, beer, or spirit. The leaves produce a pleasant tea and an infused oil. In each form, birch is an excellent tonic and detoxifier, mainly working on the urinary system to remove waste products, as in kidney or bladder stone, gravel, gout, and rheumatism. It reduces fluid retention and swellings, and clears up many skin problems.

Birch is one of the most useful of trees as well as one of the most graceful. From adhesives to wine, baskets to yokes, and boats to vinegar, it has been a boon to people in the cold north for thousands of years. Its medicinal properties have been historically valued and should be better known today.

Called the oldest tree in Britain, birch was a pioneer species when the ice caps retreated, moving in on the devastated land, growing quickly and then rotting to leave more fertile earth in which other species could take over. In its rapid life cycle birch pushes upward too fast to develop a strong heart wood, but this makes it perfect for making buckets and canoes.

As a youngster (writes Matthew), I was a suburban Hiawatha, and wanted to be a “Red Indian.” I had read in my weekly comic, the Eagle, how my heroes had made birch bark canoes and wrote on bark paper. Birch was a common enough tree, but I never really got down to the canoe or the paper. Soccer was more important.

But now these memories return, as Julie and I tap a birch in our garden. It is that time in spring after most of the frosts and before the birch buds and leaves emerge. The tree is now forcing its sap upward in prodigious quantity, and you simply tap into the flow, remembering to be kind to the tree after you have taken your share by closing off the wound.

Birch sap is rich in fructose whereas maple has sucrose. Sucrose is sweeter to the taste and the maple yields more per tree, so maple syrup is by far the bigger commercial industry. On the other hand, birch sap is cool, refreshing and clear. It tastes even better when reduced by simmering down into a golden-brown ambrosia. It’s the sort of drink the elves would envy!

Betulaceae Birch Family

Description: Deciduous trees that often hybridize, with whitish papery bark.

Habitat: Woods, heaths, moors, and gardens. Downy birch prefers wetter places.

Distribution: Silver birch or European white birch (Betula pendula) and downy birch (B. pubescens) are native to northern temperate regions of Eurasia, and found as introduced species in North America. Sweet birch (B. lenta) is native to eastern North America.

Related species: Worldwide, several birch species have medicinal value. In Ayurveda, Himalayan silver birch (B. utilis) is used.

Parts used: Sap, tapped in early spring; leaves, gathered in spring and early summer. The bark is also used.

Medicinal Properties

Birch sap, birch water, or blood, had a folk reputation for breaking kidney or bladder stone and treating skin conditions and rheumatic diseases. It can be drunk in spring as a refreshing and cleansing tonic, clearing the sluggishness of winter from the system. The fermented sap also makes birch wine and country beers and spirits.

Besides being a source of tinder and paper, birch bark has been used for tanning leather, especially in Russia, and for preserving nets and ropes. Another product of this gracious tree is an oil tar from the bark. This is used commercially in birch creams and ointments for chronic skin conditions.

The fresh leaves or buds of birch offer a powerful but pleasant tea for general detoxing, urinary complaints, cystitis, rheumatic and arthritic troubles, and gout. Some herbalists add a pinch of sodium bicarbonate to improve the tea’s ability to cut high uric acid levels. Any condition of fluid retention, such as cardiac or renal edema and dropsy, will be helped by the tea. Birch is rich in potassium, so that (like dandelion) it does not deplete the body of this mineral in the way that medical diuretics do.

Being such a good eliminator, birch tea is also effective as a compress applied directly to the skin for herpes, eczema, and the like. You can easily make your own birch leaf oil by infusing the leaves in olive or sweet almond oil. This goes into commercial cellulite treatments, and can be used as a massage oil to relieve muscle aches and pains, fibromyalgia, and rheumatism. Drink birch tea as well for maximum benefit.

Birch is regarded as safe medicinally and no side effects have been reported.

Birch Leaf Oil

Pick the leaves in late spring or early summer, while they are still fresh and light green. Put them in a jar large enough to hold them and pour in enough extra virgin olive oil or sweet almond oil to cover them. Put a piece of cloth over the jar as a lid, held on with a rubber band. This will allow any moisture released by the leaves to escape. Put the jar in a sunny place indoors and leave for a month but stir it fairly regularly, checking to see that the leaves are kept beneath the surface of the oil.

Strain off into a jug, using a nylon jelly bag or a large strainer (if you use muslin, it will soak up too much of the oil). Allow to settle — if there is any water in the oil from the leaves, it will sink to the bottom of the jug. Pour the oil into sterile storage bottles, leaving any watery residue behind in the jug, and label. Using amber, blue, or green glass will protect the oil from ultraviolet light, so if you use clear glass bottles remember to store your oil away from light.

This can be used as a massage oil for cellulite, fibromyalgia, rheumatism, and other muscle aches and pains. It can be also used on eczema and psoriasis — but remember that these also need to be treated internally, so ask your herbalist for advice.

Use birch leaf oil for:
• Cellulite
• Detoxing massage
• Aching muscles
• Rheumatism
• Eczema
• Psoriasis

Birch Leaf Tea

Pick the leaves in spring and early summer while they are still a fresh bright green. They can be used fresh in season or dried for later use. To dry, spread the leaves on a sheet of paper or on a drying screen, which can be made by stretching and stapling a piece of netting to a wooden frame. Dry them in the shade, until crisp when crumbled.

To make the tea, use 4 or 5 leaves per cup or mug of boiling water, and allow to infuse for 5 to 10 minutes.

Dose: Drink a cupful up to three or four times daily.

Use birch leaf tea for:
• Spring cleanse
• Kidney stones
• Urinary gravel
• Cystitis
• Gout
• Arthritis
• Rheumatism
• Psoriasis
• Eczema
• Fluid retention
• Fevers

Birch Sap

To collect the sap, drill a hole through the bark in the early spring, before the tree gets its leaves. Insert a tube into the hole — a straw with a flexible end works well — and put the other end in a bottle or collection bucket. After you have collected for about a week, make sure you plug the hole with a twig the right size so that the tree doesn’t keep “bleeding.”

The sap is a delightfully refreshing drink as it comes from the tree, or it can be gently simmered down to taste to produce an amber ambrosia or further reduced to make a syrup.

Use birch sap for:
• Cleansing tonic

Want more alternative medicine tips? Read Everyday Yarrow Uses for Natural Healing.

Reprinted with permission from Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2009. Buy this book from our store: Backyard Medicine.