by Kevin Estela August 07, 2015
How many times have you seen or heard, “birch bark is great for firestarting”? I know of a dozen books on just one shelf of my bookcase that reference it and know this advice appears in magazines, online, on television and in the sage advice of seasoned outdoorsmen and women. It really is a great natural tinder with a high oil content (explaining the black smoke when it burns) and when you come across it, you should take it as you never know when you’ll need it or if you’ll find more further along in your journey. That being said, I want to discuss a few other uses of birch not commonly referred to. Many of you know the birch is great for fire starting but did you know it can be eaten, drank, made into containers and carved? Trust me, there are more uses but I’m only given so much space here. Let’s dive in and look at this tree BEYOND fire starting.
The birch is a great tree for carving and whittling. Birch is readily found in Scandinavia and is a hardwood but don’t let that description fool you. In its green state, it is exceptionally easy to carve and is very straight grained with a predictable growth pattern. Birch has a center area generally darker than the surrounding wood that serves as a natural indicator of the location of the center of the wood. Birch twigs can be used for trap making, for pot lifters for tent stakes, for just about anything you can put your knife to. Next time you pass a large stand of birch trees, think about harvesting one. What you carve is limited only by your imagination.
When the nights are cold and the days are warm, the sap will run freely in the birch tree. This sap is very mild in flavor, like very watered down birch beer (what did you think they made it out of originally?) and contains a trace amount of sugar. The process of tapping a tree is simple. A hole is made to the inner bark of the tree and a twig is placed in the hole at an angle. The sap will run down this stick and it can be collected. It is safe to drink and slightly nutritious too. Assuming you already have water, young black birch twigs and leaves can be used to make tea with a slight mint flavor. Furthermore, if you are looking for a tea with great medicinal properties, many birch trees have natural growths on them commonly referred to as either tinder fungus, a.k.a. chaga, that could be the subject of a blog post itself!
Birch bark is an excellent material for container making. Large sheets of birch bark can be removed without damaging a tree as long as the tree isn’t crowned or girdled (cut all the way around to the inner bark.) Containers of all varieties are possible with some bushcraft skill. Wide foraging containers for berries, water-holding cups and bowls and pack basket style woven containers are commonly made with birch bark and patience. Containers are underrated in the outdoors and knowledge of how to make them in camp extends survivability and improves your camping experience.
I could literally write pages upon pages of how to use the birch tree. There are many more uses including flour extenders (inner bark pulverized into a crude flour), birch oil extract (made by rendering oil out of the bark in a tin in the coals of a fire), birch bark canoe making (if your skills are top notch and you have a lot of resources!), birch can be used in conjunction with a large clear bag to make a transpiration bag to gather even more water. Birch bark can be used as shingling material in your emergency shelters, just remember to layer it from the bottom to the top of your shelter and put the outer bark side face up.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely a knife collector or at the very least, fond of the designs of Andy Roy and his crew at Fiddleback Forge. Go outside with your knives and be as interested in learning how to use them in traditional living skills as you are in their designs and features. There are other trees like the birch you can study further and expand your outdoor potential. Make your understanding beyond theoretical by doing. You will have a new found appreciation for mother nature’s resources and praise the possibilities of the the humble birch tree.
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