The birch tree is both magical and medicinal. It’s shrouded in a bit of mystery, which unfolds if we sit quietly at its feet and listen.
The Medicine of Birch
The paper birch, Betula papyrifera, is a medium sized deciduous tree, which grows up to 60-90 feet tall. The leaves are alternate, have serrated edges and are almost pelvis shaped, being wider at the petiole and becoming narrower and sharply pointed at the tip. In the spring, male and female flowers are borne on separate sweet smelling catkins, which produce beautiful little seeds on papery wings.
The whitish bark peels off and rolls much like the papyrus the ancient Egyptians wrote on (hence the name Betula papyrifera), causing a person to wonder what ancient wisdom must be written on birch’s papyrus-like bark. The bark can be peeled from birch trees after a storm’s blow down and pressed flat to be used for writing or painting upon. Have you ever written a love letter on birch bark? I have. Pick up the curled bark from the ground, soak it for a couple hours in warm water, pat dry, then dry between a couple of heavy books to flatten.
Birches tend to grow in stands (a continuous family reunion), and are somewhat spindly with little forking at the lower end of the trees. Birches prefer moist, well-drained sites and thrive in open and dense woods. Usnea spp., Platismatia glauca (also called Ragbag) and many other lichens grow on the entire length of birches. Many varieties of mosses enjoy the shelter and moisture collecting at the base of the trees. Northwest Washington is at the southern end of paper birch’s range, which dominates the taiga, the cold northern coniferous forests from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Birches are rigorous trees; the stump of a cut or fallen birch will often sprout new growth. Birches are short lived; a 100-year old birch is considered elderly.
In autumn, the ever shortening days and longer nights signal the birch to release a collection of hormones. One of the hormones, abscisic acid, initiates dormancy. It acts as an inhibitory that counteracts the growth hormones and induces ethylene formation. Together, the ethylene and other hormones cause a physiological change in the tree whereby the base of the leaf petiole is walled off from the branch. The leaves, with no access to nutrients, die and drop off the tree. This change towards dormancy and the millions of functions and changes happening inside a tree standing so still boggles the brain.
Medicinally, the birch leaves and twigs act superbly as an anti-inflammatory analgesic pain reliever. The twigs are steeped in high proof alcohol to extract and preserve the wintergreen oil (terpene), which contains methyl salicylates. Twigs and small branches are harvested in the spring when the sap begins its upward movement to the tips of the branches and in the summer. As fall approaches, terpene production goes down, only to be boosted in the spring once again. The oil is useful in treating those with rheumatism, arthritis, calcium spurs, heart and kidney edema, chronic cystitis and high cholesterol. The bark and dried leaves are useful as a tea.
The leaves are gathered in the spring and dried for use in infusions. Gather the leaves in the spring when they are fully opened and in the morning before the heat of the day releases the essential oils. Birch is astringent and used for its curative effects on skin eruptions and wet eczema. Try steeping an ounce of dried leaves in a pint of water for 4 hours, strain, and use the medicinal infusion on the skin as a wash to soothe and heal.
Birch is also a “bitter,” acting as a stimulant and tonic on the digestive system. I found that by soaking the fresh leaves in apple cider vinegar for a few weeks, the bone building and immune strengthening minerals and micronutrients are released and easily added to drinking water, salads and cooked foods. Vinegar is a good medium for extracting birch’s nutrients and medicine. Use fresh leaves and chopped twigs or take the time to strip the bark from the twigs.
The bark and heartwood contain medicinal oils including Betulin. Betulin, a triterpenoid, meaning a metabolite of a terpene compound, is found in the bark and heartwood of the birch tree. In studies, betulin has shown biological activities with apparent effects on glucose absorption, glucose uptake, insulin secretion, and diabetic vascular dysfunction (1).
The benefits of betulin do not stop there as it also has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antiviral activity actions in the body. A medicinal oil of birch bark, sticks and leaves produce an effective pain relieving massage oil.
Birch trees are wonderfully fragrant after a rain, especially when the sun comes out from the clouds and warms the leaves. Terpenes are released with the heat of the sun on the wet leaves and the scent has a welcome soothing effect on the soul. Scent, a superb and easy way to influence healing, is easily accessed by the brain by simply inhaling.