Black Birch Tea

Some friends were over a week or so ago, helping us to pot up a big order of woody plants. We offered them tea. "I'll take the special of the house" said one...

Anyone who's been to a few of our potlucks knows what the "special of the house" is around here-- black birch tea.

It's a simple brew to make, and has a rich sweet flavor that combines nicely with a dash of milk and sugar. For reasons of personal taste, it's my absolute favorite wildcrafted tea. Herbalist Alma Hutchens describes it as a "stimulating nervine" and maybe that's just my type -- a balance of warming and cooling properties, perhaps.

Its main flavor is wintergreen (the same as found in wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens) but unlike the iciness of a chewing gum or toothpaste flavored with distilled wintergreen, black birch tea is richly peach-colored and smoothly aromatic.

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We make black birch tea in the simplest way: go out and clip some branches, chop the twigs into small pieces (say, 1/2 inch to an inch long), and put them in a tea kettle with water that has just boiled (but is no longer boiling, otherwise the essential oils volatilize and ascend into the heavens--or at least steam up the kitchen windows).

Letting the chopped twigs sit in the hot water for about twenty minutes yields a nicely colored and richly flavored tea.

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Ever see a birch on stilts?

Ecologically, black birch is a forest healer. Its wind-dispersed seeds can rapidly colonize small and medium-sized forest gaps (part shade to full sun), and they germinate most readily on mineral soil and in other tough strata.... the seeds are too small to germinate successfully underneath leaf duff, so they seek out odd and exposed places.

Sometimes, one finds a grown birch that appear to be growing "on stilts". That is, the base of the trunk begins as much as a few feet off the ground, and long roots hold up the trunk like octopus limbs. Often, a little cavern is defined by the space in between the exposed roots and the ground.

This happens when birches germinate on logged stumps or on rotting tree trunks -- "nurse logs". As these perches decompose, the birches roots become exposed and the trunk seems to levitate as if it chose to sprout in thin air.

Black birch responds swiftly to logging and other canopy disturbances, and heals gaps in the contiguous forest. It is known among permaculturalists as a "dynamic accumulator" -- a plant that mines certain minerals from the subsoil and retains them in living plant matter. In this case, black birch's leaf duff is rich in potassium, phosphorus, and calcium.

In some cases, then, black birch can halt not only halt erosion of newly disturbed soils, but also enrich them with several nutrients critical to the growth of other plant species.

Foresters sometimes accuse black birch of out-competing oaks on rocky soils, often in their own "regeneration cuts", but... the real culprit here is the overpopulation of deer in New Jersey and surrounding states. The deer eat almost all the acorns on the ground, and any that manage to sprout young oaks tend to get heavily browsed as seedlings. Black birch seems slightly less palatable to deer, and, at very least, has the advantage of having propagules the deer are uninterested in consuming.

In the "middle of the woods" I came across this line of identically leaning black birches. To one side was a stream and an old forest of oaks, basswoods, and hickories. To the other (the way the birches were leaning) was a younger wood of red maple and ash. My guess is that they germinated in a line on a fallen log, and either the log tilted as they grew, or they all leaned away from the older forest and towards the younger, shorter trees.

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Because black birch's medicinal compounds extract best in water, I've never tinctured it, and it's not handy at all hours of day and night. Perhaps therefore,  it's never become "household medicine" for me, despite traditional uses as a fever remedy,  alleviator of rheumatism, and stomach soother.

I do consider the tea to be tonic, and sometimes chastise myself when I've spent too many weeks tossing dried teas in the pot and not enough time outside with the birches.

Here's one last way I've used black birch-- as a toothbrush. I bite the ends of a thin twig until the wood fibers fray, and use the resulting "brush" to clean my teeth. It's a natural for the job: it has wintergreen freshness, a hint of sweetness, and also contain Xylitol, now a common ingredient in commercial toothpastes, known for inhibiting caries bacteria and dental plaque.

In addition to germinating on stumps and on exposed mineral soil, black birches grow out of cracks in rocks. No doubt some of the skinny and gnarled birches growing out of crevices are in fact quite old... but I wouldn't have the heart to cut such a survivor to find out.