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Earthnotes
Herb Library

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DISCLAIMER: These pages are presented solely as a source of INFORMATION and ENTERTAINMENT and to provide stern warnings against use where appropriate. No claims are made for the efficacy of any herb nor for any historical herbal treatment. In no way can the information provided here take the place of the standard, legal, medical practice of any country. Additionally, some of these plants are extremely toxic and should be used only by licensed professionals who have the means to process them properly into appropriate pharmaceuticals. One final note: many plants were used for a wide range of illnesses in the past, but be aware that many of the historical uses have proven to be ineffective for the problems to which they were applied.




Common BirchDwarf BirchPaper BirchRiver BirchSilver BirchSweet BirchYellow Birch




BIRCH
Betulaceae
Betula spp

CAUTION: Birch tar is currently believed to be potentially carcinogenic. NONE OF THE BIRCHES SHOULD BE USED BY THOSE ALLERGIC TO ASPIRIN!

Birches are generally divided into 3 types: white, black, and yellow.

PROPAGATION: Collect ripe, brown woody catkins in a bag to keep from losing any seeds, then spread them out to dry for several weeks; sow seed in late summer or fall, or as soon as possible after collecting and drying; seeds can also be sown in spring but require 4 to 8 weeks of stratification.
Indoors: Sow in sand with peat added, cover lightly, or press into surface of soil; cover with plastic or glass until seedlings emerge.
Outside: Rake seeds lightly into soil, then cover with boughs or brush to provide some shade and protection during the first few months of the first summer.
Germination is poor, so sow thickly.
HARVEST: Dry parts at room temperature with no auxilary heat in order to preserve the delicate oil.



COMMON BIRCH
Betulaceae
aka Bereza (Sp), Birke (Ger), Bouleau (Fr), European White Birch
(Betula alba)
imageImage

CONTRAINDICATED: NOT with irrigation therapy when edema is present, or in cases with reduced heart or kidney function. When using to flush out the urinary system, a minimum of 2 quarts liquid per day must be taken. NOT when allergic to asprin.
CONTAINS: Bark = about 3% tannic acid, volatile oil (including betulin), resin, flavonoids, bitter principle and betuls camphor.
Leaves = betulorentic acid.
Birch tar = high percentage of methyl salicylate as well as creosol and guaiacol.

A tree native to northern Europe from Italy to Iceland and >northern Asia. The young branches are usually red or orange-brown and the trunks white. The wood is soft and not durable, but less expensive than hardwoods. The tree yields oil of Birch Tar (also known historically as Oleum Rusci, Oleum Betulinum, or Dagget) which was used in the processing of 'Russia Leather', a type of leather used to bind books and which was less apt to become moldy; oil also said to repel insects; has been used in photography. This thick, tarry liquid possesses a sharp balsamic odor. Birch Tar bears similarities to oil of Wintergreen and in fact is often called Oil of Wintergreen; it dissolves completely in Turpentine oil. It is produced in large quantities in Russia and Siberia ( possibly B. pendula as well). The rectified oil (once known as Oleum Rusci Rectificatum) was sometimes substituted for oil of Cade.

The name 'Birch' is possibly derived from the Sanscrit 'bhurga' meaning 'bark used for writing'. Another possible source is the Latin 'batuere' meaning 'to strike', in reference to birch rods used for punishment.

Earth religions consider groves of birch to be sacred. Sacred also to the peoples of Northern Europe, and in the Norse tradition, when a birch tree is struck by lightening (by the hand of the god Thor), the bark is said to be empowered with magic. Witches were said to have ridden broomsticks of birch on Walpurgis night. Was mentioned in a Finnish epic (Kalevala) to be a holy tree.

Astrologically ruled by Venus.

PART USED: Bark, leaves
SOLVENT: Alcohol, boiling water.
RELATED SPECIES:
AMERICAN WHITE BIRCH image aka Broom Birch, Gray Birch, Old Field Birch, Pin Birch, Poverty Birch (Betula populifolia syn Betula var populifolia): Small tree, native to North America from the coast of eastern Canada to Ottawa, south to Delaware, Pennsylvannia, Ohio and northwest Indiana, with smooth, pure white bark which is difficult to separate into thin sheets. Leaves have two sets of teeth, are bright green above and paler beneath. Catkins appear on stalks 3/4 to 1½-inch. Found in woods and old fields.
DOWNY BIRCH image image (Betula pubescens): An Asian birch used in the same manner as B. pendula.
SMOOTH DWARF BIRCH image (Betula nana): Leaves produce a yellow dye said to be superior to European White Birch; seeds provide food for some birds; also used for Moxa.
FRAGRANT SUMAC (Betula trophylla syn Rhus Aromatica)

USES

MEDICINAL:
Diuretic, antirheumatic, stimulant, astringent, anthelmintic, cholagogue, diaphoretic.
Leaves have been used for cystitis and urinary tract infections.
Young shoots and leaves contain an acidic, resinous property and have been combined with other substances to use as a tonic laxative.
Leaves were used as a tea for gout, rheumatism, dropsy, and kidney stones; a decoction was used as a wash for boils and skin eruptions, or, the tea was taken internally and the oil applied externally.
The inner bark was once used for intermittant fever.
Has been used in the past for cardial dropsy.
Once used to treat intestinal worms.
The oil has been used mainly for eczema, but has also been used to treat gonorrhea and has been used experimentally in the treatment of melanoma and said to have some effect (no empirical evidence has been presented).
Birch tar (see caution) has been used to treat scabies. It is an ingredient in several European ointments and liniments.
The yellow, fungus-like excrescense of the wood were used as a Moxa.

DOSE: TRADITIONAL DOSAGES FOR PROFESSIONAL NOTE ONLY
!All others buy commercial preparations and follow directions carefully!
INFUSION = 1/2 tsp dried herb (inner bark or leaf buds) steeped in 1 cup water, taken upto 3 times daily. Alternate Method = 1½ cups thin bark shavings simmered 4 to 5 minutes in 1 quart waer; steeped 40 minutes, then strain.
DECOCTION = 1 Tbsp fresh leaves boiled briefly in 1/2 cup water; let stand 2 hours; add 1/2 tsp baking soda; 1 cup daily.
TINCTURE = 1/2 tsp, 3 times daily.
EXTRACT of LEAVES = 25 to 30 grains daily
PRESERVED SAP (sap in 20% alcohol) = 1/2 tsp 3 times daily.

CULINARY:
Young leaves have been used in cheese.

OTHER:
Wood has been used for building boats, buildings, paneling, bobbins for thread mills, herring-barrel staves and broom handles.
The twigs were once used for thatching roofs and wattles.
Birch charcoal once used for gunpowder.
The white bark can be separated into thin layers and have been used as a substitute for oiled paper.
Tapping the tree produces a thin, sweet sap from which beer, wine and vinegar have been made.
The white, rotten wood was boiled in a decoction of Ledum latifolium (Labrador tea) for an hour, then dried and rubbed to a power which was used for chafed skin; the skin was washed with cold water, then the powder was sprinkled on; was also used as a baby powder.




DWARF BIRCH
Betulaceae
aka Bog Birch, Low Birch, Swamp Birch
(Betula pumila var glandulifera syn Betula nana var glandulifera, Betula glandulosa var glandulifera, Betula terra-novae, Betula crenata)
imageImage

SEE CAUTION NOTES AND CONTRAINDICATIONS ABOVE!

A multi-stemmed shrub found throughout Canada and the northern United States in bogs and wooded swamp. The young leaves and branches are dotted with resin producing glands; leaves possess 3 to 6 pairs of veins. The nut is much larger than its wings.

USES

MEDICINAL:
Pillager Ojibwe placed the tiny female catkins on a plate of coals as an incense to cure congestion. They also prepared a tea from the cones which was taken by women during their menses as well as after childbirth.

OTHER:
Was used by the natives around Hudson Bay as a matting between the bedding and the snow.
The twigs were used as the rib frame for baskets to be woven with sweet grass.




PAPER BIRCH
Betulaceae
aka Canoe Birch, White Birch
(Betula papyrifera syn Betula papyracea)
imageImage

SEE CAUTION NOTES AND CONTRAINDICATIONS ABOVE!

CONTAINS: Methyl salicylate (counter irritant, analgesic) which is absorbed through the skin, making it useful as a poultice for pain. Today, synthetic methyl salicylate is combined with menthol in creams and liniments to relieve musculoskeletal pain.

A small tree of North America found in Canada to the Yukon, Alaska, south to Washington and east to New York. Bark is white with black markings and is easily pulled off in large pieces. Leaves are 2 to 4 inches long with single teeth and hairy beneath at the midrib where it's joined by the veins. Catkins are 1/2 to 3 inches long and appear on stalks.

Used by Native Americans to make canoes, a lightweight means of transportation, but requiring a good deal of skill due to the tendency of these watercraft to easily overturn.

In 1964, bark was found in archeological digs at 27 locations throughout the Juntunen site on Bois Blanc Island in Michigan.

NEEDS: Moderately fertile, moist, but well-draining soil; part to full sun.

USES

MEDICINAL:
Diuretic, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory.
In North America a tea was brewed for fevers, kidney stones and cramps from excess gas.
Poultices of boiled bark were used to heal wounds, burns and bruises.
Was used to expel worms.
Was used to treat gout.
Oil has been used externally on boils and sores.
Sap and leaves have been used as a blood purifier.
Birch enemas were employed by the Chippewa for diarrhea and constipation. A poultice of the leaves and bark was used to treat wounds and skin irritations.
In New England, birch 'gum' was used for sciatica.
The bark was used as splints by heating the bark, then shaping it.
The Ojibwe combined the root bark with maple sugar to make a syrup for stomach cramping. Birch bark was also bound around the head for headache.

CULINARY:
BIRCH BEER: Place 4 quarts finely cut twigs (or inner bark) in a 5 gallon crock; add 4 gallons water (or birch sap) and bring to a boil; add 1 gallon honey, then remove from heat; strain when cool; put liquid back in crock and place 1 yeast cake on a piece of toast to float stop the liquid; cover with cheesecloth and allow mixture to ferment for one week or until it stops "working"; bottle the beer and store in a cool, dry place; depending on storage conditions, can last from a few months to a year.

COSMETIC:
An infusion of birch is added to bath water as a skin tonic.
An infusion is also used as a skin lotion.
A decoction of the bark has also been used as a skin lotion. A few drops Oil of Birch can be added to bath water or to home-made preparations such as aftershave and massage oil.

DYE:
The Ojibwe boiled the innermost bark to produce a reddish dye.

OTHER:
Canoes and wigwams made from the bark. In spring, sections measuring 10 to 12 feet long and 2 feet 9 inches wide were cut from large, smooth trunks with a wooden wedge; the fibrous roots of white spruce were soaked in water to make them flexible, then used to attach the sheets to each other; the seams of the canoe were caulked with resin from the balsam fir, creating light weight water transportation. The inside of the bark (closest to tree) was placed on the outside of the canoe.
Native Americans fashioned cups and dishes from the bark as well as baskets and even encased their dead in it.
Native Americans on the move in spring tapped the tree and used the liquid in place of water.
Used by the Huron to make chests to store corn.
Many Native American tribes used rolled tubes of bark as torches.
Thin strips of bark were placed outside of a wigwam to chase away the spirits of the newly dead.
Used to make paper and whipping rods.
Early North American settlers used the tea as a gargle and mouthwash to freshen breath.




RIVER BIRCH
Betulaceae
aka Black Birch, Red Birch, Water Birch
(Betula nigra)
imageImage

SEE CAUTION AND CONTRAINDICATIONS NOTES ABOVE!

A slender tree found from New Hampshire to Florida east of the Appalachians, from southern Ohio to southern Michigan, southeast Minnesota, eastern Kansas, and Texas in swampy areas. Grows to 30 feet with reddish or greenish-brown bark which peels in thin layers. Young shoots and undersides of leaves are hairy; leaves have a double row of teeth. The twigs and leaves are NOT aromatic. Catkins appear on very short stalks.

NEEDS: Moist location with soil pH 5.0 to 6.0.

USES

MEDICINAL:
Delaware indians pounded the bark finely to use as a medicine.
The bark was used in decoction by the Chippewa for stomach pain.




SILVER BIRCH
Betulaceae
aka Lady of the Woods (Coleridge), Warty Birch, Weeping Birch
(Betula pendula-Roth syn Betula verrucosa-Erhart)
image 1 image 2
Images

CONTRAINDICATED: NOT with irrigation therapy, nor when edema is present, or in cases with reduced heart or kidney function. NOT with allergy to aspirin.

CONTAINS: Saponins (heaviest in young leaves); volatile oil (including betulin); resin, flavonoids, tannins, and a bitter principle.

Just to confuse things, this tree is also referred to as European White Birch. A tree growing 40 to 90 feet with an average life span of 50 years, it is native to Europe, but found throughout the northern hemisphere being more prevalent along the east coast of the United States, Canada, and northern Europe, with silver-white, thin bark which peels off in layers and contains Betulin, which reflects light and gives the tree a silvery appearance. Twigs dotted with whitish warts. Leaves alternate, glabrous, broadly ovate, tapering a fine point, double toothed, smooth and shiny, but with minute glandular dots when young. Flowers tiny with no petals borne on male and female catkins. Male catkins 3/4 to 2 inches long, pendulous, develop from buds at tips of twigs; female catkins, more cone shaped, appear further back along the twig on short stalks. Fruit is a tiny winged nut which ripens from the female catkins.

PROPAGATION: By ripe seed sown in a mixture of peat and sand in spring or summer; germination is erratic and seeds does not store well.
NEEDS: A hardy tree that tolerates some degree of dryness better than related species. Prefers well-drained soil in sun or shade, preferably sandy sil with a pH below 6.5 and is not at its best in shallow, alkaline soil. Has a shallow root system and should be planted at least 18 feet away from any building. Susceptible to bronze birch borer; leaves susceptible to aphids, catapillars, sawfly larvae, miners, and rust; bark susceptible to birch polypore fungi, witch's broom and Armillaria root rot.
PART USED: Young leaves, bark, sap, leaf buds
HARVEST: Buds in March; leaves April and May; sap and bark in spring. Leaves, buds and bark are dried and stored for use; the tapped sap is peserved in an alcohol-water mixture (1 part vodka to 3 parts sap). Leaf buds and young leaves are used for infusions, poultices, and tinctures. The bark is stripped from cut timber which is harvested for the distillation of its oil; the sap is tapped from mature trees during early spring.
CULTIVATED VARIETIES:
B. pendula 'Tristis'
B. pendula 'Youngii'

USES

MEDICINAL:
Astringent, diuretic, antiflammatory, diaphoretic, bitter action, tonic, mild laxative. Stimulates bile production and is slightly antiseptic; has a mild sedative effect.
Has mainly been used for problems of the urinary tract and for urinary stones in particular, as well as cystitis and kidney stones. In Europe, an infusion has been taken 3 times daily for kidney problems. The sap prepared as a tea was used as a tonic for anemia, gout, scurvy and rheumatism.
Due to bitter action has been used for digestive and liver complaints.
Has been used to treat chronic inflammatory conditions like gout, rheumatism and arthritis. Also, a poultice of the leaves have been used on inflamed joints as well as the sap. In Russia, the buds are gathered and preserved in Vodka to treat imflammatory conditions, but also used for colds, pain, stomach ulcers, loss of vitality, to purify blood, to stimulate the appetite, for gall bladder problems, and for kidney and bladder gravel.
Leaves have been used for fever. An extract of the leaves, buds, and bark was applied externally to wounds, ulcerated wounds, boils, eczema and other skin conditions; it was also used for albuminaria and rheumatic swellings.
Has been used to treat skin diseases; externally, Birch Tar oil has been used for psoriasis and eczema.
Birch charcoal has been used as an absorbent in poisoning, also for bloating due to intestinal gas.
Only one source refers to its use in cases of arteriosclerosis. No reason is given for this claim.
Sap is said to promote hair growth in cases of falling hair (sap/alcohol mixture is added to an equal amount of water and massaged into the scalp). The leaf tea is also used as a wash for dandruff and falling hair.
The Russians used birch as part of therapeutic bathing. In a cloth bag, 2 to 5 lbs of leaves were placed and set into a container filled with enough water to cover; bag was simmered for 1 to 2 hours, then removed; the decoction was poured into the bath with enough water to reach the waist when seated; shoulders, neck, back, face and arms (upper body) was doused for as long as desired or until the bather no longer felt comfortable; this bath was used once or twice a week for a period of 30 weeks to revitalize the body and aid it in healing from external and internal problems.

DOSE: TRADITIONAL DOSAGES FOR PROFESSIONAL NOTE ONLY
!All others buy commercial preparations and follow directions carefully!
PRESERVED SAP = 1 tsp three times daily
INFUSION = 2 to 3 cups daily; add a pinch of baking soda to each pint of water to facilitate the release of the active principles.

OTHER:
Fermented sap has been used to make beer, wine, spirits, and vinegar.
Wood has been used to make charcoal, paper, cotton reels, toys, and to smoke fish.
Bark has been used in commercial tanning and gives leather a pleasing fragrance.
Twigs have been used a brooms as well as making birch rods to flog offenders.




SWEET BIRCH
Betulaceae
aka Black Birch, Cherry Birch, Mahogany Birch, Mountain Mahogany, Spice Birch
(Betula lenta)
imageImage

SEE CAUTION NOTES AND CONTRAINDICATIONS ABOVE!

CONTAINS: Sweet Birch Oil contains methyl salicylate. Bark contains betulin, betulinic acid (antiviral activity) and salicylates (approved by the FDA for treatment of warts. Plant parts also contain potassium.

Tree native to the eastern United States, resembling the cherry tree, and found growing in rich, moist woods from Maine to Georgia and west to Michigan. Bark (included in the Canadian list of medicinal plants 1868) is brown when young, dark gray to black with horizontal stripes as it ages. Leaves are ovate, pointed, alternate in pairs with fine serrations and possessing 9 to 12 pairs of side veins. Male flowers grown on 3 inch long catkins in fall, female on 1 inch catkins in spring; catkins being almost stemless with smooth scales. The source of Sweet Birch Oil which is used in place of Wintergreen Oil in external applications. The commercial production of the oil takes place from late May to September when the bark and twigs are collected, chopped, and placed in retorts with water where a low fire keeps them warm overnight; the oil is distilled the next day. Commercial distillaries prefer young trees or shoots 4 or 5 years old grown from stumps. Twigs have a strong wintergreen flavor when crushed.

NEEDS: Prefers a moist condition with a soil pH 5.0 to 6.0.
PART USED: Small twigs, inner bark, leaves, distilled oil.

USES

MEDICINAL:
Stimulant, aromatic, diaphoretic, astringent, anthelmintic, alterative, pectoral, depurative, antiscrofulous.
Has been used in decoction and syrup form as a tonic for dysentary, diarrhea, and infant cholera; a tea was made from a syrup of the bark and peach stones and used as a restorative after dysentary.
Sweet Birch Oil has been used externally to treat arthritis and rheumatism.
Native Americans made a tea from the leaves to treat headache and rheumatic/arthritic conditions.
Has been used by the Osage for colds, coughs, scrofula, and sores.
For warts a piece of bark was moistened and placed directly against the wart; tea was also rubbed into warts.
Tea has been used as a mouth wash for cankers.

DOSE: TRADITIONAL DOSAGES FOR PROFESSIONAL NOTE ONLY
!All others buy commercial preparations and follow directions carefully!
BARK = 30 to 60 grains
INFUSION = 1 tsp leaves or bark to 1 cup boiling water, steeped 10 minutes, 3 times daily.
DECOCTION = 1 tsp inner bark (or leaves) simmered in 1 cup water; 1 to 2 cups taken daily.
TINCTURE = 1/4 to 1/2 tsp

CULINARY:
Oil is used as a flavoring agent, especially for candy. Beer has been made from the decoction, or the sap; the boiled sap was used like honey or maple syrup.

OTHER:
Wood has been used for cabinet making and was once used for pianofortes; also for furniture, wooden spoons, tool handles and broomsticks.
The cambium has been know to be eaten in spring after being cut into spaghetti-like strips.
Sweet Birch Oil is used in dental products and in perfumery.
Twigs were once chewed to clean teeth.
Oil has been used to preserve furs from insect damage.




YELLOW BIRCH
Betulaceae
aka Swamp Birch
(Betula alleghaniensis syn Betula lutea)
imageImage

SEE CAUTION NOTES AND CONTRAINDICATIONS ABOVE!

A medium sized tree found in moist woods from eastern Canada to the northwest shores of Lake Superior, and south to northeast Iowa, northern Indiana, Tennesee, North Carolina, northern Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Delaware with an irregular crown and yellow or grayish bark which separates into thin layers. Twigs taste of wintergreen. Leaves have doubly serrate margins with soft hairs on the veins beneath. Catkins stalkless, or with a negligible stalk, and hairy.

USES

MEDICINAL:
The Ojibwe scraped the inner bark to make a decoction and mixed it with maple sugar as a diuretic.
The Potawatomi extracted the oil and used it to hide the flavor of nastier medications.

OTHER:
The Ojibwe tapped the tree for sap and added maple sap to use as a beverage drink.
Was used by the Potawatomi in the sapling stage for wigwam poles which were set in a circle, then bent down at the tip to meet and overlap the center where they were tied together for a framework.





© 2003 by Ernestina Parziale, CH

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