Eating bark probably sounds like something you would only want to do in a desperate survival situation. But surprisingly, bark can be both nutritious and tasty. It is also something that can be foraged at any time of year, even in regions with harsh winters.
Bark has a long history of being used as food. Adirondack, the name of a region of New York State, means “bark eater.” It was the name given by the Mohawks to the Algonquins who lived in that area. The Nez Perce also used bark, not only as survival food, but as a food of choice. And bark is a traditional food of many Scandinavian cultures.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of how to eat bark in ways that are A) sustainable (the harvest doesn’t kill the tree), and B) tasty (not just “edible” but “good”), let’s define “bark.”
With rare exceptions (I’ll get to one of these at the end of this post), edible bark is not the dry, scruffy stuff on the outside of the tree trunk or branch. Instead, foragers are after the inner bark, which is the layer just under the rough outer bark. This inner bark includes the phloem, cambium, and outer secondary xylem (sapwood)..
These tissues combine in a layer that is soft, lightly sweet, and more nutrient-dense and digestible than the outer bark or the heartwood. Why?
This is the layer that contains the transport tissues through which much of the water and minerals comes up from the roots, and where the sugars produced by photosynthesis travel down from the leaves to the rest of the plant. The cambium layer is a region of active growth that produces xylem and phloem, as well as cork. This combination of water, nutrients, and sugar transport plus a meristematic (active growth) region makes the inner bark layer moist and flavorful.
Once you understand that the inner bark is the transport zone for water, nutrients, and carbohydrates in a tree, it becomes obvious why “girdling” the tree can kill it. Girdling is cutting off a strip of bark around the entire circumference of the trunk.
Think about it: Let’s say you’ve removed a strip of bark all around the trunk of the tree. Some of the water coming up from the roots hits that cut and can’t make it up to the branches and leaves.The leaves are busy photosynthesizing, but the when the sugar they are creating tries to travel down to the roots, it hits your girdling slash in the bark and can’t go any further. The gap in the transport zone kills the tree. What we need to do as foragers, if we want to harvest inner bark without killing the tree, is ensure that there is plenty of intact cambium, phloem, and sapwood around the trunk to enable that transport up from the roots and down from the leaves.
Another issue to be aware of is the risk of disease and infestation. A big, gaping hole in the bark can be an invitation to fungal infections and bug problems. There are three solutions to both the girdling and the disease/infestation issues:
The most surefire way not to hurt the tree is to keep an eye out for freshly fallen branches after a storm. Once separated from the tree, the inner bark dries out quickly and is no longer good to eat. But if you find some freshly fallen branches within 2 to 3 weeks after a storm, go for it.
Come in at an angle with a pocket knife and work down the branch in strips. You’ll be able to feel the harder wood layer below the inner bark. Strip off the layer just outside that. You’ll be getting the dry outer bark as well, but you can peel or rub that off later.
Prune a Branch
Another option is to prune a branch from the tree or shrub and then strip the inner bark from the branch. Correct pruning methods should be used to minimize disease potential, most importantly cutting just past the branch collar. The branch collar is the slightly wider area where the branch attaches to the tree. It contains special tissues that rapidly heal the cut, but they can’t do their job if you cut off the branch flush with the trunk.
The Narrow Vertical Cut
The last method is a narrow, vertical cut on the main trunk. There are numerous examples of indigenous peoples on more than one continent having used this method. And although many arborists would advise against it, in my experience there is a way to do this without causing any permanent damage to the tree.
Use a knife to score a vertical rectangle in the bark. The rectangle should be no wider than an inch. This is important, because the wider the wound, the longer it will take the tree to heal, so keep it small. Making the strip vertical rather than horizontal minimizes interruption of the tree’s food and water transport zones.
Keep scratching across the four sides of the rectangle in a tic-tac-toe-like pattern until you hit the harder wood beneath the bark. Slip the edge of your knife under between the soft inner bark layer and the wood, and pull the inner bark off in strips.
It is much easier to use this method on young trees with relatively thin outer bark. Not only is working with young trees easier on your foraging knife, but such trees recover more quickly, in my experience.
You should not, however use this method if you know you are in a region where Dutch elm disease, butternut canker, mountain pine beetle, or emerald ash borers, or other tree diseases or infestations are a problem (thanks to fellow forager Doug Mueller for the reminder about the ash borers). If you’re not sure if these problems apply to your area, contact your County Extension office and ask.
Of the edible barks I’ve sampled so far, these are my favorites. Where I haven’t given a species name, it means that all the species within that genus have bark that is edible and safe to eat.
Birch (Betula species)
Linden (TIlia species)
Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)
Pine (Pinus species)
I have no doubt there are numerous other safe and tasty edible barks out there. Let me know if you have experience with any not on my short, personal “tastiest” list.
Note that not all woody plants have edible bark. Some may have other edible parts, but inedible bark. For example, some may have edible flowers (e.g. Wisteria), or edible flowers and fruit (e.g. elderberry, Sambucus), but all other parts of the plant are poisonous. Remember the first rule of foraging: if in doubt, leave it out.
It is almost always the inner bark of trees that is used for food, but an exception is shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). Its craggy outer bark, which peels off the tree easily, is popular among foragers as a syrup flavoring. Roasted and then simmered in sugar, maple, or other syrup it gives a wonderful nutty, caramel flavor…but that’s a future post.
Use only thin strips of fresh, moist pine inner bark for this recipe.
Remove the outer bark and any green, resinous parts. Heat a lipid of your choice – oil, butter, or animal fat – in a skillet over medium high heat. Use just enough oil or fat to coat the pan.
Fry the pine bark strips on each side until they turn reddish brown, about 1 – 2 minutes per side. Remove from the pan and sprinkle with salt while still hot. You can play with the seasonings: I like a little ground chipotle for smoky flavor. Or cook them in a pan over a campfire and get a naturally smoky taste that way.
Hot from the pan, the texture will be slightly crunchy and slightly chewy, with a hint of sweetness…very much like bacon. Once cooled and stored for a few hours, you’ll have more crunch than chew, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Birch bark makes a lovely infusion (black and yellow birches especially, because of their wintergreen flavor, but I’ve enjoyed other birch species as well). Ground into a flour, it can be used in baked goods such as the Birch Bark Shortbread recipe in my book The Forager’s Feast.
Other inner barks can also be ground into flour. Slippery elm bark has a mucilaginous texture when cooked in water. This means you can boil it up into a thick porridge that has a reputation for being good for recovering from extended illnesses. It has a lovely maple-like flavor. And it soothes sore throats, coughs, and tummy troubles.
Another inner bark with medicinal properties is willow. It contains salicin, which the body converts into salicylic acid, an anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving precursor for aspirin.
There is one use for edible inner bark that I’ve seen mentioned on the internet, and that I advise you against: bark as pasta. The idea is that you take skinny strips of cambium and boil them and then add a sauce. I’ve tried this several times, and have yet to arrive at a texture I found palatable. If you manage to pull it off, let me know what the secret is.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging internationally and is the author of several books including The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather, and Prepare Wild Edibles and Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries. You can find more of her recipes and food adventures on her blog and videos, and in the new, updated edition of her memoir Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch.
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