Birch

Birch | Betula alba/pendula

general characteristics

general characteristics

Common names include European birch, white birch, silver birch, paper birch, Lady of the Woods.

 

The birch is a common deciduous tree belonging to the Betulaceae family. It is a common woodland tree with it's characteristic silvery white bark which peels and lifts easily, has graceful drooping branches which bear catkins in Spring before the leaves emerge.

It is native to all of Europe and Asia Minor but tends to grow at higher altitudes in warmer climates. They are fast growing and typically reach around 85 feet in height but can grow taller on rare occasions. They are also relatively short lived, reaching an average of around 70 years old but can live double that if growing in a sheltered spot.

Their deep root system is famed for hosting a wide variety of fungal species including fly agaric (red spotty 'toadstool'), edible chanterelles, the very useful tinder fungus and the potent tumour shrinking 'chaga' mushroom. They are also associated with wild flowers such as wood sorrel, primroses, bluebells and wood anemones as well as up to 334 different species of insects, invertebrates, mammals and birds.

They are known as a 'pioneer species' which means they are one of the first trees to begin the process of re-forestation, that is they are one of the first trees to sprout on open land, often forming their own birch forests for many years before the larger slower growing trees such as oak and beech take over.

It is often purposefully planted in land that is contaminated with man-made pollution (such as old mines) as it is a powerful cleanser of the land, purifying it to enable future generations of less sturdy plants to flourish.


 



harvesting and preparation

harvesting and preparation

The parts most commonly used are the young spring leaves. The leafing buds, bark and sap can also be harvested.
The young leaves are best collected in Spring or early Summer (no later than June) as the fresh lime green leaves emerge. They can be dried for preservation for future use or harvested daily and taken fresh as a tea. They could also be added fresh to juices and made into a tincture using fresh or dry leaves. The bark can be distilled to form a resinous tar like substance called 'birch tar oil'. This has incredible adhesive and waterproofing qualities as well as medicinal uses. The twigs are traditionally tied into bundles for use as a broom.
The thin and papery outer bark (the stuff that easily peels off) makes excellent tinder and kindling in fire making whereas the bark itself can be used for many useful items such as cans, boxes, baskets, strapping, coverings for boats, roofing and even for preserving food (by wrapping with birch bark). Harvesting of the bark should only be carried out with expert knowledge or the tree may suffer horribly and could die.
Be mindful to take only a few handfuls of leaves/buds from each tree visited. I prefer to simply cut a few of the small lower branches off the tree (like a gentle pruning) and harvest the leaves /buds only off the branches I have collected. This way you don't get ugly bare branches stripped of leaves during the summer months. You can also consider collecting from recently fallen branches. If you know someone who has a silver birch growing in their garden, perhaps ask if you can collect from it and offer to share the harvest. Better still, grow it yourself.
If drying the leaves or leafing buds, lay them out on a tray lined with paper and put them somewhere warm and out of direct sunlight to dry fully before storing in an airtight container away from light and heat. Make sure the buds have plenty of room between them and watch them carefully whilst they are drying to check for problems.
The fresh young leaves can also be eaten raw or cooked.
 
 

therapeutic actions and uses

therapeutic actions and uses

As with most native trees, the birch tree is blessed with a myriad of practical, nutritional and medicinal uses. Birch leaves are rich in methylsalicylate (converted in salicylic acid in the body, aka aspirin), potassium and volatile oils. They are used in traditional healing as a spring tonic to aid with cleansing and detoxing the body and stimulating the eliminatory action of the kidneys.
As the most common part of the birch used in medicine are the leaves, the following information relates to the leaves unless otherwise stated.
Their medicinal actions include diuretic, insecticide, anti-inflammatory, mildly laxative, sweat inducing (diaphoretic), analgesic (pain killing), antiseptic and the old herbalists favourite...blood cleansing.
 
Birch leaves are diuretic (increases the flow of urine), a tonic stimulant to the kidneys, can be used in cystitis and other urinary tract infections, for water retention (especially when due to kidney or heart weakness) and for dissolving kidney stones and shifting gravel.
 
Due to its anti-inflammatory, fluid regulating and detoxifying actions it is traditionally used in cases of rheumatism, dissolving calcium spurs and accumulations in joints, arthritis, gout, water retention, for increasing the metabolic processes and for lowering the levels of uric acid in the body.
 
Can help to ease muscle pain, sprains and strains when used externally as a poultice.
 
Birch leaf tea can benefit stubborn skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema and can also help to heal wounds when used externally as a poultice. Birch tar oil (made from distilling the bark) is a resinous substance that has been used traditionally for skin conditions and wound healing and is also good for repelling insects when applied to the skin.
 
Birch leaf tea also makes a useful mouthwash or a wash for encouraging a healthy scalp and improving the condition of the hair and preventing baldness.
 
Useful for cellulitis and toxic accumulations in the skin.
 
Can be useful as part of a tea mix for obesity.
 
The leaves can also induce a decent sweat which benefits in fevers (by opening the skin and cooling the body) and the skin and kidneys by gently releasing toxins via the opening pores of the skin, particularly when used in the bath. The same sweat can be induced by stuffing a cotton bag (or any natural, breathable fibre) filled with freshly dried birch leaves and placing them in bed with the person needing the treatment.
 
The bark is strongly antimicrobial, antibacterial and antiviral and has demonstrated an ability to decrease the activity of (and increase the vulnerability of) the hepatitis C virus and also shows promise in the treatment of bacterial TB. Both of these studies on birch bark were carried out on mice.
 
It has also been studied for its potential benefits in the treatment of certain cancers, the HIV virus and the herpes virus. Birch bark is also mildy laxative and tonic to the digestive system.
 
Click the highlighted text for an excellent review on the medicinal components of birch.
 
 

dosage and cautions

 

dosage and cautions

Birch leaf is generally safe to use but I personally would not use for long periods as single remedy due to its stimulating effects on the kidneys.

*Avoid using birch leaves if you are taking diuretic medication ("water tablets") due to their action of increasing urine output.

* Avoid if you have an allergy or sensitivity to aspirin or birch pollen.

Adult 

Tincture: 1-2ml in a little water, 3 times daily

Dried herb in tea form: 1 -2 teaspoons, 3 times daily

Fresh herb in tea form: 1 teaspoon, 3 times daily

 

A handful of fresh or dried leaves can be tied in a bag and added to a bath or placed in bed with you. This causes a good sweat to come on and is an old fashioned remedy against rheumatic or arthritic pains.

Birch bark can be made into a tea by simmering 30-60g in a litre of water for 5 minutes. Stand for 15 minutes. The dose is  a wineglassful mornings and evenings.

 

Children
Add 12 to the child’s age. Divide the child’s age by the total.
E.g. dosage for a 4 year old...... 4 {age} divided by 16 {age + 12} = . 25  or 1/4 of the adult dosage.
 

 

 

 

 

 


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