Month: February 2014

How Birch Bark Heals Wounds Faster, And How To Make Birch Bark Medicine For Skin

yellowbirchwildfoodismWhen treating illness or disease, it makes sense to consume food and medicine of the highest quality.

Should not the same standard apply, then, to the things we put onto our bodies, for instance, in the event of an injury or wound?

For those individuals who are looking for something – how should I say it – less toxic? – than the creams and lotions with concentrated antibiotics (known to contribute to antibiotic resistance), synthetic preservatives, synthetic fragrances, and synthetic colors:  consider looking to the birch tree for potential wound relief.

According to researchers from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Freiburg, an extract from silver birch bark (Betula pendula) is able to expedite the wound-healing process, doing so in two unique ways (1).

First, the extract enhances acute inflammation.  When skin is damaged, certain inflammatory mediators are recruited to the area of injury.  Birch bark, in particular its triterpine betulin, heightens this particular response when applied to wounds, allowing for greater production of inflammatory substances that fight harmful bacteria and remove dead tissue.  This pro-inflammatory process is only temporary, which is a good thing, as extended inflammation could be detrimental to the wound healing process.

Second, the extract enhances tissue repair.  After skin is damaged and inflammation is underway, new skin cells must close the wound.  Birch bark, when applied to skin, causes keratinocytes to migrate more quickly to the site of injury, helping to seal the wound.  It seems as though the compounds betulin and lupeol are responsible for this crucial second step.

While the particular mechanisms behind the wound-healing properties of birch bark provide new information for scientists, the use of birch bark to heal wounds has been known by researchers for quite some time.  A 2010 case study documented the ability of birch bark extract to successfully treat severe necrotizing herpes zoster (shingles) in a patient who failed to respond to conventional topical treatments (2).

In another report, birch bark extract was shown to be effective in treating two patients with second degree burning (3).

The history of birch bark for wound treatment goes back yet even further.  If we are to look at the traditional use of birch trees by indigenous peoples, at least in North America, we find that several groups used the bark to treat various skin disorders.

For example, paper birch was used to treat skin rashes.  The Cree used the outer bark to bandage burns.  Inner bark, added to pitch and grease, was used by the Cree as ointment for persistent scabs and rashes.

Gray birch was used by the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq for infected cuts, and powdered wood from the downy birch was used by the Cree to treat chafed skin (4).

Although Native Americans did not produce extractions as sophisticated as the modern ones currently used in research, they were still able to take advantage of the skin-healing properties of birch trees through simpler methods, and so can you.

Both betulin and lupeol, the chemicals responsible for the wound-healing effects of birch bark, are poorly soluble in water.  To make birch bark extractions, then, alcohol and fat would be better solvents.  This can be accomplished by removing the bark (the researchers used the outer bark), crushing it into small pieces, and extracting the materials in alcohol or fat.  After a few weeks, the mixture can be strained and bottled for later use.

A salve can also be quite effective, produced by extracting the bark in olive oil, straining, and adding the solution to melted beeswax.  Upon solidifying, the salve is ready for use.

Being able to identify birch trees is important, as they can also be utilized for food, medicine, sap and syrup, basketry, dyes, lumber, and fire wood.  When using them to treat wounds, however, understand that there is a limit to what they can accomplish.  If you are out in the wild and injure yourself severely, professional emergency medical help might be the better option.

Still, it is important to know that birch bark can be used in certain circumstances to treat skin disorders.  And what’s even more important than just knowing about it is taking action and putting this information to good use.

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!

3. Schempp C, Huyke C (2005) Behandlung von Verbrennungen 2. Grades mit Birkencreme. Der Merkurstab 5: 402.
4. Moerman, D. E. (2008) Native American Ethnobotany. London: Timber Press, Inc.

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Thank you!
Adam Haritan




Healing Chronic Diseases For Free With Wild Food

chickweedwinterwildfoodismFrom Reuters:  “One in three Americans with a chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or high blood pressure has difficulty paying for food, medications or both, according to a new study.”

It has become quite evident by now that the most heavily subsidized and advertised foods are responsible for the declining health of America’s citizens, offering little in the way of solutions.

Remember, as the popular phrase reminds us, that a problem cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created it.  Relating this to the topic at hand:  Even if all Americans with chronic diseases could afford food and medications, this would do very little to solve the overarching issue.

(Note: the chronic illnesses discussed in this article refer primarily to the ones caused by diet and lifestyle, and not the disorders of absolute genetic influence.)

What is the overarching issue?  America is centered around a diet of domesticated, medicine-deficient foods.  Not surprisingly, these same adulterated foods are associated with chronic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension.

Through the agricultural process of domestication, wild organisms have had most of their medicines bred out of them in exchange for improvements in taste, size, and yield.  Today, medicinal compounds are sought after by pharmaceutical researchers, extracted and patented, and sold back to sick Americans at enormous profit margins.

We’re sold on the idea of an inferior diet.  We’re sold the foods of an inferior diet.  We get sick on an inferior diet, and expect these same foods to provide relief and aid ourselves back to health (with the help of synthetic drugs, of course).

If only we had let food by thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.

Sometimes, we confuse ourselves so much that even the obvious – what is literally in plain view – remains obscured.  Food was, and also has been, free.  For the majority of our time on this planet, we, Homo sapiens, consumed the wild foods that grew naturally in our ecosystems.  Only with the development of large-scale agriculture did we start to see evidence of massive surpluses of food, necessitating individuals to reign over the food supply and ultimately assign monetary value to their agricultural commodities.  And yet, the wild foods remained free.

I understand that our species, at least in the United States, has evolved quite a bit away from the natural processes of hunting and gathering (i.e. self-sufficient living), and it may not be feasible to expect the average American to reacquaint him or herself with these skills.  But it seems to me that this idea – of becoming more self-sufficient in all areas of life – targets the root problem, and is not just another band-aid to superficially cover the wound.

Contrast my thoughts, about becoming more self-sufficient in all areas of life, with what Reuters has to say:

…the authors recommend looking into eligibility for food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC…

And later..

“The most important thing people can do is talk with their doctors about it,” said Berkowitz.

Yes, it is possible that the proposed solutions, at least in the short-run, will allow individuals to access food and medications during difficult times.  But is the lack of access to food assistance programs the real issue here?  Do all doctors teach self-reliance?  Do they have the answers as to why more and more Americans are experiencing chronic diseases with no conventional relief?

True, particular individuals with chronic diseases may not be able to afford certain foods.  But are the foods of the standard American diet really the ones best equipped to heal ourselves in times of distress?

A radical paradigm shift must be enacted, apparently, to understand that the most natural and healing foods for the human body are, and always have been, the wild foods of this planet.

And these foods are free.

I understand that this extreme transformation, from once relying on others (supermarkets, doctors, pharmacists) to now taking full responsibility for one’s health, may not be the feasible, overnight solution for which everyone is looking.  It’s not meant to be a short-term fix.  But if more and more individuals understood that true health could be gained and maintained by sustainably utilizing the natural resources of this planet, then perhaps we would finally see real change.

No, I’m not talking about the change that comes from recommending that men, ages 31 to 50, consume 2 cups of dark green vegetables, 6 cups of orange and red vegetables, 2 cups of beans and peas, 6 cups of starchy vegetables, and 5 cups of “other” vegetables weekly (1).  Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong crowd here, but I have yet to meet anyone doing just that.

What we need to see, for any real progress to occur, is an emphasis on the kind of lifestyle that has been shown to be effective, for instance, in producing healthy children, with adequate bone and facial structures, generation after generation.  Healthy indigenous populations, consuming a majority of their calories from wild foods, come to mind.

I suppose that in an ideal world, things would be different.  We would have less food assistance programs, and more food education courses.  We would have less food banks, and more wild food to harvest.  Never again would we think of food as just a source of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients.  And never again would we think that “healthy” food costs too much.  Instead, we would understand the food we consume to be the foundation of all nourishment, medicine, and health.

Ultimately, we would treat food less as a commodity, and more so as the sacred resource it always has been.

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Thank you!
Adam Haritan



22 Trees That Can Be Tapped For Sap And Syrup

maplespilewildfoodism2As winter wanes and spring approaches, wild foodists all across North America tap into the time-honored tradition of sugar production – mainly, the transformation of maple tree sap into maple syrup and sugar.  This process, passed on from the Native Americans to the early settlers, is still quite popular today, and is responsible for one of the few wild foods that can be purchased commercially in most supermarkets.

Most people associate syrup with the maple tree, and although much of today’s syrup does originate from the sugar maple, all species of maple can be tapped.  Even better, many other trees from other genera can be tapped to extract sap, which ultimately can be turned into delicious syrup.

In this post, I won’t be discussing the methods involved in tapping for sugar production.  If you are unfamiliar with the process, there are a variety of great websites, videos, and books to guide you.  Rather, I would like to provide a list of various trees (maples, birches, walnuts, etc.) that you can tap successfully to yield wonderful, sugary products.

Now… before we get started, I’m wondering if you’re the kind of person who would rather watch a video than read a blog post.  If that’s you, check out this recent video I created.  In it, I discuss how to properly identify 4 trees — including 2 maple and 2 birch — that you can tap for sap and syrup production.

Okay… back to the list:

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
The sugar maple yields the highest volume and concentration of sap, making it a superior candidate for tapping.  Its sugar content is approximately 2.0%.

Black maple (Acer nigrum)
Black maples produce as much sweet sap as sugar maples.  The trees closely resemble sugar maples and can be distinguished by their leaves.  Black maples tend to have leaves with three major lobes, while leaves from sugar maples have five lobes.

Red maple (Acer rubrum)
Sap yields from red maples are generally lower than those from sugar maples, although some tapping operations utilize only red maples.  The trees bud out earlier in the spring, which may reduce syrup quality near the end of sugaring season.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
Like red maples, silver maples bud out earlier in the spring and have a lower sugar content than sugar maples (1.7% compared to 2.0%).

Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
Native to Europe, Norway maples are now considered invasive throughout much of the United Sates.  They are not as sweet as sugar maples, yet can be tapped regardless.

Boxelder (Acer negundo)
Also known as Manitoba maple, boxelders can be found growing in urban areas and along roadsides.  They’re not recommended as a first choice for sugar production, although maple producers in the Canadian prairies rely almost exclusively on boxelders for their sap.  Research suggests that boxelders may yield only half the syrup of typical sugar maples.

Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)
Bigleaf maple is the main species of maple growing between central California and British Columbia.  Native Americans have tapped these trees for centuries, and although the sugar content and sap flow are less than those from sugar maples, these trees can still provide a commercially viable source of syrup for the Pacific Coast.

Canyon maple, big tooth maple (Acer grandidentatum)
These trees are found primarily throughout the Rocky Mountain states.  They also grow in Texas, where they are referred to as Uvalde bigtooth maples.  The sugar content is comparable to that of sugar maples, but the volume produced is much less.

Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum)
Rocky Mountain maples are native to western North America, and have been used traditionally by various groups, including the Plateau Natives.

Gorosoe (Acer mono)
Gorosoe, which translates to “The tree that is good for the bones,” is the most commonly tapped maple tree in Korea.  The sap is usually consumed fresh as a beverage, and not boiled down to a syrup.

Butternut, white walnut (Juglans cinerea)
The butternut produces a sap that yields roughly 2% sugar – similar to sugar maples.  The timing and total volume of sap are also comparable to sugar maples.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
The black walnut tree is a valuable timber species, whose sap flows in autumn, winter, and spring.  It is more common in the Midwest than in the Northeastern United States.

Heartnut (Juglans ailantifolia)
A cultivar of Japanese walnuts, heartnuts have sugar contents comparable to sugar maples, but produce much less sap.

English walnut (Juglans regia)
These are the walnuts commonly eaten and purchased from supermarkets.  They are not typically found in the Eastern United States, but rather are grown most abundantly in California.  English walnut trees can be tapped successfully, especially when subjected to a freezing winter and spring.

Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)
The paper birch has a lower sugar content than sugar maple (less than 1%), but is the sweetest of the birch trees.

Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
The yellow birch tree has been found to have a higher mineral composition, lower sugar content, and a higher ORAC value (measure of antioxidant capacity) than sugar maple.

Black birch (Betula lenta)
Native to eastern North America, black birch is most popular for its use in making birch beer.  And, as this list suggests, the black birch can be tapped.

River birch (Betula nigra)
Found growing abundantly in the southeastern United States, and planted as an ornamental in the Northeast, the river birch can successfully be tapped.

Gray birch (Betula populifolia)
Gray birch is more of a shrub than a tree, but may be tapped if it grows large enough.

European white birch (Betula pendula)
Native to Europe, and grown as an ornamental in urban and suburban areas of the United States, European white birch can be tapped.

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Native to North America, the sycamore tree has a lower sugar content than sugar maple, yet is reported to produce a syrup that exudes a butterscotch flavor.

Ironwood, hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)
These trees produce a sap later in the spring, although the sugar content and volume are much less than those from birch trees.

And there you have it – a list of 22 trees that can be tapped.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, as other trees surely produce a sap that can be extracted through tapping.  It is, however, a good representation of the most commonly tapped trees, including those that have been used traditionally for centuries, and some that are just recently gaining in popularity.

If you are fortunate to have access to any of the aforementioned trees – and the trees are healthy – explore the traditional art of sugar production by learning and participating in this beautiful craft.

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Adam Haritan