Paper birch, black birch, silver birch -- all of the slender, mysterious members of the Betula family hold a place in the poetic imagination, yet all share uses in the practical world as well. For centuries, virtually every part of the birch tree has yielded a myriad of medicinal, cosmetic, gourmet or practical use.
Lumber and Fuel
Lumber from slender birch trees turns a lovely honey color when milled, varnished and used in furniture-making. Birch cabinets and desks are classic examples. In addition, birch trees provide fibers for Popsicle sticks and interior plywood.
Birch trees also serve as fuel for wood stoves and fireplaces. In addition, tossing birch twigs onto sauna coals is an ages-old Scandinavian custom believed to help improve circulation when the steam releases the birch's volatile oils.
Once an important medicine because of the presence of Salicylic Acid, the ingredient used in aspirin, birch bark and twigs form the basis for traditional Native American medicines for pain relief and indigestion. At least one manufacturer is now exploring uses for the compound betulin, found in birch trees, which appears to have significant anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties and may become a significant skin care ingredient and may have implications for serious diseases such as cancer.
Herbalist Lesley Bremness favors the silver birch for at-home treatments. She recommends rubbing the inner bark of the silver birch over aching muscles, or infusing fresh leaves in boiling water to make an herbal tea for cystitis and other urinary tract problems. (Consult a physician before trying any herbal preparations.)
Birch Beer and Birch Syrup
As with sugar maples trees, tapping birches yields sap, which makes an intriguing alternative to maple syrup and maple candy. The undertaking works best for those with both significant stands of birch trees and the equipment necessary for sap boiling. It takes 100 gallons of birch sap to produce one gallon of birch syrup.
On the other hand, you'll need only a gallon or two of unprocessed birch syrup to make a root-beer like beverage at home. Keep in mind, however, that any of the yeast-fermentation processes result in an at least slightly alcoholic brew. Make a more kid-friendly version by adding briefly-boiled and cooled birch sap to store-bought, unflavored tonic.
Wintergreen and Birch Oil Production
Bark from the sweet, or black, birch yields the essence known sometimes known as "wintergreen" when true wintergreen oil from the teaberry plant is unavailable. The essential oil known as "birch oil" generally comes from the leaf buds or bark of the silver birch. Both types of birch oil are used in the fragrance and cosmetic industry, as well as for aromatherapy and massage. Food-grade birch oil flavors candies, sodas and other food meant to evoke "root beer" or "wintergreen" qualities.
Home Beauty Treatments
Steeping birch bark in boiling water creates a herbal decoction useful for any number of cosmetic purposes, according to herbalist Jeanne Rose. She recommends using the extract for skin problems, such as eczema, or as a hair rinse for dandruff and other scalp disorders.
Although people rarely use the unprocessed bark from the "paper birch" for writing these days, some cultures do use the leaves in traditional papermaking. Chinese artisans, who make a delicate paper requiring a gel-like substance to hold the fibers together, boil birch leaves for their mucilage content. They add the birch mucilage to processed bamboo leaves to produce the paper.
Birch Bark Crafting
Native Americans utilized birch bark to make containers and cover shelters, and, most famously, to construct birch bark canoes. Today, artisans continue the art of basket making by stitching or weaving together pieces of birch bark, and dedicated craftsman continue to produce birch bark canoes using traditional Native American methods.