By Janelle Eklund
We awoke to a crisp clear frosty morning in September on the Denali Hwy. Most of the photography class, brave enough to face the cold, donned their wooly clothes, left the comfort of the lodge, and headed for the tundra, instructor in tow. Tripods heavy with cameras balanced on shoulders. The sky overhead was blue, and as the sun rose above the horizon the spectacular reds and yellows of the tundra came alive. The kaleidoscope of leaves sparkled with the frozen breath of night. Dwarf birch leaves were stunned by the frigid cold. Sunlight poured through them highlighting the outline of their toothed edge. Capturing the beauty in the camera's eye before the sun melted it away was tricky. Arranging the tripod in the right position for composition, adjusting depth of field, shutter speed and focus was a bit challenging while keeping fingers warm. It all paid off for some stunning photos, and the fun and joy of experiencing the beauty of the tundra as it woke from the sleep of night.
Dwarf birch is important browse for some animals and birds such as caribou, moose, and ptarmigan. Ptarmigan will eat the buds, catkins and twigs, while caribou and moose dine on the leaves, buds, and sprouts (US Forest Service web site).
Salicin, the aspirin like compound, is present in the bark of dwarf birch. 'Medicinal Flora of Alaska Natives' by Ann Garibaldi says that on Nunivak Island the leaves "were boiled and drunk to relieve stomach and intestinal pain". In Tanaina Plantlore other traditional uses were to place the branches on the back for protecting the hunter’s clothes when packing meat. Branches were also used as a sort of 'clean table', laid on the ground while processing meat and fish.
Dwarf birch likes to live amongst willows, blueberry bushes, and other low lying plants. In the fall they all work together in their final encore when they morph into brilliant autumn colors. The fire red landscape shimmers against the backdrop of a deep blue sky. Capture and keep it in a photo, a painting, your writer’s hand, or your mind's eye.
May the beauty of the wild give you pause for contemplation.
From my light to yours-
By Janelle Eklund
Elegant draping leaves, a skirt of ruffled bark, and a stately composure make the birch the jewel of the forest dance. Although they are not so prolific in the Copper Basin, the small numbers make them even more of an outstanding jewel. I love coming upon these peaceful looking trees and admiring their beauty.
I'm sure everyone has either heard of or tasted the life blood that flows through the veins of this wonderful tree - birch syrup. Sap from the tree is tapped in the early spring. The process from turning sap into syrup can be labor intensive and it takes a lot of sap to produce a little syrup. One time I watched a video on the making of birch syrup in Alaska. The company lived in an area where there were lots of birch trees. It was mind boggling to see that it can take 80-100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
The sap is also used medicinally and natives have used it on boils and sores. Sap is best used fresh as it tends to spoil fast.
Birch has a compound, methyl salicylate, which is similar to aspirin, and contains betulin. An infusion of the leaves can help with urinary problems and kidney stones. To ease a headache or pain from inflammation of muscles, joints, or fibrous tissue make a tea with birch leaves and bark, willow, and poplar since they all have similar qualities. You can take it a step further and make a salve or massage oil out of the birch buds and leaves and rub on your skin to ease those aches and pain.
Birch leaves and catkins are also edible so try in a salad or use as a spice in a main dish.
Birch bark has been used for centuries to make waterproof containers. Natives fashion the bark into baskets for containers when picking berries or in ancient times to boil water. Rocks were heated and placed in a basket of water over and over until it reached the boiling point. The bark has also been used as roofing and fashioned into tarps or shelters in wet weather. Need an emergency splint when an unexpected accident occurs out in the woods? Birch bark has been wrapped around an appendage and padded with moss and then tied in place. The bark has been made into many other useful items such as canoes, baby carriers, dishes, etc. It's important to be careful when harvesting the bark so as not to damage the tree. It is best for the tree to take bark from a pruned branch.
The birch tree is a host for a fungus called chaga (Inonotus obliquus) - a type of fungus mushroom. My dental hygienist was telling me about it so I did a little research. In Tanaina Plantlore the natives call it Black Birch Burl or k'atnitsayi, meaning 'to ignite'. It can be used for fire starter and they used it as a toothache medicine after soaking in hot water and used as a tea.
It looks kind of like a burl of burnt wood on the trunk. It doesn't hurt the tree to cut it off with a saw or hand ax. It is amber on the inside and has been described as a corky texture. It has an incredible amount of antioxidants, has been used in cancer therapy, and has been reported to be anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-microbial, anti-candida, anti-viral, and helps to regulate the immune system. In 'The Fungal Pharmacy' by Robert Rogers there is a Russian recipe for chaga tea: Pour 2.6 qrts of boiling water over 17.5 oz. of dry crumbled chaga. Cover and leave at room temp for four days. Filter and refrigerate. Grind chaga to a mush. Add two qrts of 122° water and let stand for 48 hrs. Strain and add the two liquids together. Drink 6.7 oz. four times daily before meals.
From my light to yours-
Information for this article was gleaned from Tanaina Plantlore by Priscilla Russel Kari, Discovering Wild Plants by Janice Schofield, The Fungal Pharmacy by Robert Rogers, and the internet wikipedia and youtube.
By Janelle Eklund
Once upon a time many years ago I was hiking somewhere in the Copper Basin. As I recall, I was up high on open ground where I could see the lake I was aiming for. I knew where it was, and it wasn't all that far away, but getting there was easier said than done. Not far above the lake the brush was thick but looking down on it from my vantage point it looked easy enough to get through. As I got closer, though, it became clear that it wasn't just little scrub brush - it was alder. The closer I got the taller it got. It's amazing how perception can fool the brain. As I entered this 'forest' of trees with many tangled trunks, it towered over my head. Going through it I felt like a microscopic bug trying to navigate through thick tall grass. As I started to scramble through, my vision around me decreased and my 'hey bear' voice got louder and louder. With much frustration and yelling, I managed to reach my destination. My recommendation - find a way around the alder, even if it means walking further.
That's the hate part of the alder relationship. The love part is that it does have some good qualities. Its bark is great for smoking salmon, imparting its sweet scent to the meat. I will cut a stem, take a hand ax and chip off pieces for the smoker...mmmmm!
The male and female flowers develop on the same alder plant. The male flowers are called catkins. They are long and flow languidly from the branch. When a breeze or the wind breaths through them, they gracefully sway and, when the time is right, release pollen into the air. The female flowers do the opposite of the males. They stand upright, start out as green buds and then grow into what looks like a little woody cone.
You can pick the catkins in the spring and eat them raw or add to a favorite soup or other dish. They aren't the best tasting but they are high in protein. So remember - if you are caught out in the wild, in the spring, and need some sustenance - munch on a few alder catkins.
Alder has some medicinal qualities from making a tea of the leaves and dried inner bark, which are bitter. I learned in Janice Schofield's class that bitters are good for digestion and cause moisture in the mouth, which is part of stimulating digestion. To make the bitter taste of the tea easier to get down you can mix other herbal leaves with it like dandelion and nettle. But Janice says be sure the inner bark of alder is dried before using because if it's fresh it's emetic and induces vomiting, which could be a good thing if a poisonous substance has been ingested. Like yarrow, alder can also stop bleeding, although yarrow is better tasting. In Janice's book, ‘Discovering Wild Plants’, she says that making a stronger alder tea can stop internal bleeding in an emergency when no doctor is available.
I read an interesting thing about alder in Medicinal Flora of Alaska Natives by Ann Garibaldi. She says the natives have used the sticky alder leaves to help relieve arthritis. And sucking the juice out of the green alder cones was good to treat diarrhea. One to many cones were used, depending on how bad the situation was. Making a tea out of the fresh green cones by boiling for a half hour and then drinking 2 or 3 tablespoons anytime seemed to help. If it didn't stop it then they would make the tea stronger and drink it until the diarrhea slowed down.
Alder roots are good for the soil because they are nitrogen fixers and add organic matter. They often come in after an area has been disturbed. Once other species take over and grow taller it crowds the alder out because alder doesn't like shade. And anyway, it did its job.
May you enjoy the love relationship with alder and avoid the hate part.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.