Wild Edible: Black Birch

The Black Birch is an excellent tree to be able to identify because it offers a variety of uses when out on the trail. It is available in most areas of New England stretching from the southern regions of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire down on through to some areas of The Carolinas, Tennessee, and even Georgia.  This tree can usually be found on moist slopes and occasionally on drier rocky slopes.  By name it is closely related to the White Birch, but the Black Birch does not share the quality of having bark which flakes off like paper for excellent fire building material.  The Black Birch’s bark is darker in color sometimes with a reddish tint, not quite black, but does have a similar pattern to the bark similar to what the White Birch would have.  In younger trees, the bark is smooth, but tends to break up and get rougher on the larger trees.
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Leaves on the Black Birch have a more oval shape at the base and come to a single point at the tip toothed edges on either side and straight veins running diagonally from the center spaces pretty evenly from each other. They are also hairy on the underside of the leaves.  Small catkins appear near the ends of the branches in the spring which matures into winged seeds between the flower catkin bracts in the fall.
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Once you believe you have the tree properly identified, you can simply snap off a small twig and smell it, if identified correctly you will notice a slight wintergreen smell.  Personally, I like to do this when out in the woods and simply chew on it while walking for a refreshing taste in the mouth or to use as a toothpick which leaves a wonderful taste behind. The tree used to be used for making wintergreen flavorings in gum, gelatins, and candy. The small twigs can be harvested, processed down and used to make a pleasing tea by simply pouring hot water over them and allowing it to steep, too much heat can deteriorate the wintergreen flavor.  In the spring, these trees can be tapped for sap which can later be refined into a thick syrup similar to that of maple syrup but not as sweet or can be used raw as a fresh water source although they do not “bleed” as much as a maple would.  Birch tree sap may also be refined to make a resin or tar which makes for an excellent wilderness glue.  The wintergreen taste and smell is produced from the same chemical (methyl salicylate ) found in the wintergreen plant and does have medicinal properties similar to aspirin, so as with anything harvested in the wild, always use in moderation.  Methyl salicylate is used for treatment of headaches, muscle and joint pain and skin soothing, it is actually one of the main ingredients in commercial muscle relaxing creams like Bengay.
For a recipe to make a Black Birch Beer, have a look at Cooks.com
The wood of the Black Birch tree is quite strong and hard so makes an excellent choice for furniture, flooring, shelter building, and of course firewood (when dried).  It is also susceptible to a particular fungi called birch polypore which attaches to the tree as a parasite and decomposes the tree killing it.  This fungus is very woody and can actually be used as a strop for sharpening blades and also makes for a decent fire starting material.
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