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2008 Alaska Herb Tea Co.
Anchorage, Alaska


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BIRCH Betula papyrifera

 Description: Plant

Text Box:  Deciduous, from low shrub to tree size; white bark which peels laterally, paper thin; leaves oval to heart-shaped, with fine-toothed edges, sharp tips; catkins, sometimes long and drooping.



From dry slopes to tundra to peat bogs.



Athabascans traditionally have used birch in numerous ways. The wood is used to make snowshoes, sleds and their runners, spoons and dishes. The bark was wrapped around fractures, rolled up into a tube for calling moose, and used to make containers (baskets) for storage, gathering, drinking cups, baby cradles and canoes. Birch sap is food as well as a medicine for people in Interior Alaska. Birch sap is suitable for drinking directly from the tree, as a beverage and spring tonic. It is used on boils and sores as a medicine. Sap can also be rendered into syrup, or fermented into wine. A decoction of the leaves is used as a diuretic, is said to break kidney stones, and is gargled for sore mouths and canker sores. May be used externally in antiseptic ointments for skin diseases, and for stiff muscles and joints. Birch leaf is a gentle sedative. It is a "blood purifier". Birch bark makes brown dye for skins. It is used for tannin. Leaves of B. nana are said to dye a better yellow than common birch. To obtain a strongly flavored wintergreen tea, pour boiling water over a large quantity of twigs and/or shredded bark and allow to stand in a covered container for several days, then strain and reheat. Since the tea is derived from bark and twigs, it is available throughout the year.

The bark and twigs of sweet and yellow birches contain aromatic oil, methyl salicylate, which is almost identical, to the oil from wintergreen (Gautheria procumbens). Wintergreen flavoring, used in candies, gums, toothpastes and medicines, when not synthetic, is usually derived from birch (Historical note: methyl salicylate was used in the preparation of aspirin. Until 1874, aspirin was prepared by hydrolysis of the oils from sweet birch bark or wintergreen leaves.). Birch bark baskets are premium gift items in Alaska. 

Special Harvest or Processing Comments:

Leaves should be gathered in spring. Care must be taken when harvesting sap, not to over tap the tree, and when gathering bark, it is important to take only the outer, white-paper bark. If the under layer of bark is stripped, or girdled, the tree will die. Also, harvesting bark disfigures the tree, and so should be done in more remote locations.  For commercial purposes, a stand of birch should be identified and designated for sustained yield. The actual concentrations of methyl salicylate in Alaskan birch trees needs to be investigated. Birch bark and twigs must not be dried by heat above 80F, as heat will drive off the wintergreen essence.


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