Welcome to Endangered Edibles (Part 4). In this blog series, I’m sharing stories about wild plants and how they’ve helped my dental health. Please read, share, and enjoy!
The deep woods of Maine. The Green Mountains of Vermont. The valleys of Chugach National Park in Alaska. When I think of birch trees, I imagine a cold northerly wind blowing down my thick wool coat. Birches aren’t all that common here anymore because of deforestation and the deep winters of the far north. As a teacher, I’ve had to learn hundreds of different plants. My students know the birch tree as the “root beer tree.” For the 2021 year, the class familiarized themselves with more than one hundred species of edible, medicinal, or valuable plants. For them, the birch tree is one of their favorites, and this story may give you, the reader, a sense of why.
Walking together one sunny day – through the familiar forest, sprinkled with age-old and glacier-worn granite – we looked with eager eyes around. I reached my arm up, pulled down a low-hanging branch, and pinched off new buds. Holding the stem close to the eye showed beautiful colors of deep brown. We pinched the stem and scratched the bark, allowing exquisite smells of licorice, chocolate, and wintergreen to fill the air around us. From that day on, those fifth graders never forgot the tall and proud birch tree, with its silver bark and majestic branches reaching the crisp baby-blue sky. Wherever we found them growing, the now sixth graders had birch twigs dangling from their mouths.
Common name: Birch
Latin name: Betula ssp.
Number of species in New England: 11
- Birches contain anti-microbial activity against Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Candida albicans, and Aspergillus niger.
- Betulin and betulinic acid is treating human gastric carcinoma and human pancreatic carcinoma.
- Betulinic acid enhances cellular immunity, humoral immunity, and activity of macrophages.
- Birch sap and Chaga mushroom (which grows on birch trees) extracts possess ant-oxidants, adaptogenic, and DNA repair capacities.
According to the North American Ethnobotanical Database, these tribes are but some of the people who use birch as medicine: Ojibwa, Algonquin, Cherokee, Delaware, Haudenosaunee, Potawatomi, Micmac, Chippewa, Mohegan, and the Inuktitut.
Cited uses include diuretic, food, building, cathartic, emetic, gastrointestinal aid, liver aid, blood medicine, dermatological aid, gynecological aid, canoe material, beverage, Ceremonial items, containers, cooking tools, adjuvant, antidiarrheal, cold remedy, urinary, pulmonary, febrifuge, orthopedic, stimulant, and tonic.
You can find more about the Genus, Betula, on the International Union for the Conversation of Nature’s website.