Cold Weather Foraging: Birch


birch tree

Mid-winter is my favorite time to harvest birch for sweet-flavored food and warming beverages. Birch trees are easy to identify in winter thanks to their distinctive bark. The bark is an eye-catching white, or pale yellow, slashed with dark horizontal marks, and frequently found peeling off of the tree in papery strips. Older birch trees may have much darker bark, but the younger branches will still flash silvery pale hues. Check the leaf buds and you'll find that they are alternately arranged on the twigs (in a hand-over-hand pattern rather than in pairs). Birch trees can grow from 30 to 50 feet tall, depending on the species of Betula, but are often shorter. They often grow near water.

Harvesting and Eating Birch

At this time of year, there are three ingredients I get from birch trees: tea from the twigs; a tea, spice, and flour from the inner bark; syrup from the sap.

Although you could prune off a few twigs here and there without harming the birch tree, you probably don't have to. Birch wood tends to be brittle, and smaller branches almost always break off the trees during winter storms. Just look on the ground soon after a storm and collect the windfall. That's also the best way to collect the cambium (inner bark). Take one of the thicker windfall branches and come in at an angle with a pocket knife. As you pare it down in a strip you'll be able to clearly identify the papery outer layer, softer inner bark layer, and hard central wood layer. It's that middle layer you want, but fine if the outer layer is clinging to it. Birch cambium is pale when first exposed to air, but then rapidly becomes a reddish-brown color. Note that stripping bark full circle around the main trunk can kill a tree, which is why I recommend collecting it from storm-broken branches instead. Both the twigs and the inner bark have a light wintergreen scent that is another one of the identification characteristics for birch.

2/12/2014 8:00:50 AM

We have lost the ability to use nature for things like this. Most people have NO IDEA how to live if we lose all the luxuries of life. I love watching Survivorman because I have played that game myself. I enjoy learning how to take small amounts from the land and use them for myself, mindfull of insuring I leave enough behind. There is so much we could take from the land that is very good, but very few know what to look for at all. I wish we as a nation would allow MORE Herbalists to work their craft.

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