Woodlands of Scotland: Medicinal Uses of Birch Trees

Birch (Betula spp.)



Birch is a thinleaved deciduous hardwood tree of the genus Betula  in the family  Betulaceae

Trees with characteristic pale papery bark. There are two species in Scotland:

Silver birch (Betula pendula): 

The leaves are alternate, oval to wedge-shaped, about 2.5-5 cm long with narrow pointed tips, and are hairless. The margins are clearly double-toothed whilst the leaf stalks are 1-2 cm long and also hairless. Silver birch is a deciduous tree with a single trunk up to 30m in height and it has pendulous branches. Silver birch grows in woods and on heathland especially on light sandy soils. It is more tolerant of dry soils than downy birch. The young shoots are hairless and shiny and often covered in tiny white warts (lenticel). The bark of mature trees is silvery-white but with black, diamond-shaped patches near the base. The male and female catkins are on the same tree (monoecious) and open in April. The pendant males are 3-6 cm long, whilst the erect females are short, 1-2 cm long.

Betula pendula

  • Silver birch is one of the most valuable trees for wildlife supporting 230 species of insect including buff tip moths and sawflies.
  • The whitish timber is much used for furniture-making, wooden floors and broom-heads.
  • The twigs are valuable for making besom brooms, forest-fire beaters and jumps for steeplechasers.

Downy birch has similar qualities.

Downy birch (Betula pubescens) : Tree c 4-20 m tall. Leaves c 2-4 cm long.

Betula pubescens
Betula pubescens








Other features: Female catkins borne singly along the twigs, male ones at the ends of the twigs, often in pairs making conspicuous V-shapes on the winter tree.

Betula pubescens - early spring leaves

Bark silvery, turning a rich copper colour in patches.

Betula pubescens

Branches not drooping like Silver Birch, thoughsome may have a downward drift .

Betula pubescens

Betula pubescens












Common in many woodland types.

General Uses

The sap, tapped from the tree in early spring, can be drunk alone or fermented into wine (produced commercially on a small scale in Scotland).


Birch sap is taken as a general tonic and as a long-established cure for urinary and kidney disorders.

A tea is made from birch leaves.

The springy branches, the oil and the tough flexible bark – and even the roots – of birch have been put to many uses. The twigs are still used to make besom brooms and baskets. The outer bark is also used in basketry, and the leaves yield green and yellow dyes.


Tap the trunk in March, April, early May (depends on the climate. when the buds start to swell.) when the sap is rising.

(Wild Harvests research – uses in Scotland today)

Silver birch sap: used to provide beverages for personal use and gifts.

Birch bark: used to provide craft materials for personal use, gifts and processed items for sale.

Being a blood purifier, the tea, twigs and bark can be helpful for boils and sores when taken internally as well as used as a wash. Birch bark has positive effects on the bowel as well, which makes it tonifiying to the whole body.  It can aid in conditions of diarrhea, dysentery and cholera infantum.

It has historically been used to expel worms. The oil from the bark and buds keeps away insects and gnats, which are plentiful in the Northern areas. A tea of the twigs and bark aids in ridding the mouth of canker sores. Native Americans boiled the bark to make poultices for minor wounds. An oil made by distilling the bark of the sweet birch was traditionally used for bladder infections, rheumatism, gout and nerve pain.

The Salycilates in Birch bark have been used effectively against warts. The bark of Birch as well as the essential oil of Birch both contain salicylates that can ease sore muscles or joint pain if applied externally.  Birch oil decreases inflammation in tissues and provides a counter-irritant when applied to overlaying and inflamed or irritated joints.  Additionally, the bark as well as the buds have been used when antibacterial, antiviral and cell regenerative qualities are needed.  This makes it great for wounds of many types. A study was done with patients who had infected wounds ranging from shallow to very deep cuts. Each patient was treated with the tincture of Birch buds.  Very good results were obtained after using the tincture on all of the patients including ones with anti-biotic resistant infections.

The inner bark has been used for intermittent fever and cardial dropsy, and the wood of Birch has a yellow fungus that is used as a Moxa. The inner bark of birch can also be ingested safely.

Birch bark can be soaked until moist in water, and then formed into a cast for a broken arm. Splints made of birch bark are soaked in water until quite soft. They are then carefully fitted to the limb and tied with bark thongs. On drying, they become stiff and firm.

Birch leaves: used to provide beverages for personal use.

An infusion made from the leaves of the Birch has been used as a diuretic and cleansing agent to the urinary tract. It has therefore been used to eliminate gravel and dissolve kidney stones and to treat cystitis and other urinary tract infections.

This infusion can also be used to cleanse the body of excess water.  In addition, it has been used to treat gout, rheumatism and mild arthritic pain.

Other uses of Birch leaves are for cramps and wounds.

You can also boil young shoots or leaves in water to make tea. The young shoots along with the leaves have been used as a tonic laxative. The decoction is also used as a sleeping aid before bed for insomnia.

This same tea can also be used as a wash for skin complaints. You can soak birch leaves in water for few hours and then use the strained solution for washing the skin as a treatment for skin problems. If the skin problems are severe or chronic, a decoction of the bark can be used as a wash or added to the bath. In addition, the oil extracted from the buds or the bark can be used externally for acne, rheumatism and gout.

Experts usually recommend soaking birch tree leaves in apple cider vinegar for several weeks to help in the release of its minerals and micronutrients. You can consume this vinegar as a part of beverages and meals and drink it directly for treating coughs.

An infusion of birch leaves will cool a fever and therefore aid the symptoms of the common cold.

The buds of the birch tree are a rich source of vitamin C, tannin, and flavonoids, which makes them effective in the prevention of viral infections and even the formation of cancer.

Birch twigs: used to provide craft materials for personal use, gifts and processed items for sale. The bark and twigs of the birch tree have qualities very similar to Wintergreen.  They can be used as a healthy drink as it aids in purification of the blood.

Birch roots: used to provide craft materials for personal use, gifts and processed items for sale

Tapping the birch

The sap from the birch tree contains vital vitamins, minerals, and sugars, mainly glucose and fructose. It is rich in minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, phosphorous, iron, sodium, and amino acids. It is also rich in vitamin C and B-vitamins like thiamine. The sap from the birch tree is used to make syrup that you can consume directly or use as a part of salad dressings, soups, candies and even wine and beer.

The usual way is to drill a hole into the trunk with a brace and bit (about an inch), and bung it with a pierced cork with a plastic tube leading into a demijohn. When the sap stops flowing, plug the hole carefully to avoid infection. Don’t tap the same tree in successive years, or you will weaken it.Look for the trees with healthy crowns (buds to the top, without rot or ice wind damage at the crowns), healthy bark (not girdled or stripped), and lots of exposure to the southern sun.  If you are lucky you will get about two to three litres from each tree.

If nothing comes out when you are half way in, the tree is dry. Stop drilling, hammer in a plug and try another tree. After three no-shows it will be worth waiting another week.

Birch sap tastes almost exactly like water – but the freshest water you have ever tasted, with just a hint of sweetness (0.7% sugar is the highest ever found). It does not keep very long so refrigerate or freeze sap as it spoils easy.– it stays about four days in the fridge – so use it as soon as you can.

How to collect birch sap: 

This is a description how to collect birch sap from your own birch as a beverage for a family of four. During the summer, the birch tree stores nourishment for the next  period of growth in its roots. The following spring, this nourishment rises as sap through the trunk up to the branches.

The birch tree emits sap only for a short period of time (about four weeks) during spring. That period starts when the snow has melted away and the day-temperature reaches some degrees above freezing point. The rise of the sap stops immediately when the tree comes into leaf.

During sap-rising, a big old birch can give 15-20 litres per day, but this requires a tapping-hole of 5 cm diameter and 10 cm depth. The birch will endure such treatmentonly once, maybe twice in its lifetime.

To be more careful with the tree, perhaps in order to be able to tap some sap every year, you could be content with a smaller hole, e.g. with 2 cm diameter and 2 cm depth. This will give about 3 litres per day, at least in the beginning of the sap period.

It is possible finish this process within 5 minutes:
















Drill a hole with an 18 mm installation drill about 2 cm aslant up into the trunk a bit above the ground. The sap starts dripping immediately.

Push a plastic pipe connector for cable pipes (19 mm outer diameter) into the hole.

Strap a beverage bottle (1.5 litres) with funnel to the trunk using a luggage strap. Caution! Do not use a glass bottle for sap collection as this may crack during frosty nights.


A simple way of making birch sap. 


This tree here is a black birch -Betula lenta. (wintergreen smell under bark, etc.) The tap season has to do with climate and conditions. Some years trees have been tapped in May (latest) and the earliest march.

Alternatively, you could cut off a branch and let the sap drip from the stub into a (plastic) bottle tied to it. It is even possible to tap sap from a tiny birch shoot, but this will of course not yield very much.

I cut off the top of a meter-high shoot which grew near the wall of our house and installed a collection device as shown in the picture below. This yielded half a glass of sap every day for two weeks. The sap was really sweet and aromatic!

When sap-rising is over and the tap-hole has become dry you can seal it with grafting-wax or tree balm. Then press a bottle cork or wooden plug into the hole. This will protect the tree against rot.

Note: If you want to drill a hole in a tree which is not your own, you might need the permission of the landowner.

Note: Birch sap to be tested as a remedy against birch pollen allergy should be as fresh as possible. The sap must not be treated in any way and must under no circumstances be boiled! Whether possibly active substances survive freezing or the addition of e.g. some preservative has not been investigated. Therefore such treatment of the sap is not recommended!

Other trees to tap for their sap:

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.

How to make birch syrup:

To make syrup, it needs large quantities of birch sap. It takes an average of 100 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup. Using a large volume pot, concentrate sap, regularly stir it while it boils and darkens in colour. It should look like very strong tea. Be careful, overheating the sap will cause syrup to burn and taste bitter.

Birch syrup does not need to be refrigerated. Maple syrup is thicker than birch syrup.

Don’t use metal since birch sap is more acidic than maple sap.

How to make birch sugar:

Stirring birch syrup till it becomes light beige will make a type of sauce to use it in different types of food.

How to make birch wine:

For this, we need silver birch tree.

4.5 litres of birch sap
200ml white grape juice concentrate
Juice from two lemons
1.2 kg white sugar (it can be derived from dry fruits as well)
Sachet white wine yeast
Yeast nutrient – follow instructions on packet

(I am sure there are natural ingredients for yeasts)

Gently heat the sap in a pan with the lid on to 75C and keep at that temperature for 20 minutes. Take off the heat and stir in the sugar until it is dissolved. Closely cover the pan and allow to cool. Transfer to a fermentation bucket and add the lemon juice, grape juice concentrate, yeast and yeast nutrients.

Keep the bucket closely covered for five days then siphon into a demi-john, fit the bubble-trap and leave for about two months. Rack-off into a fresh demi-john and bottle when it is all nice and clear. This stuff goes bad for a pastime, so be extra careful making sure everything is sterile and the bottles well sealed.

The flavour? Light, dry, fruity, with a faint piquancy of wet paper bag.

How to make birch beer:

  • 5 gallon crock
  • 4 quarts finely cut sweet birch twigs
  • 1 gallon honey
  • 4 gallons birch sap
  • 1 cake soft yeast
  • 1 slice toasted rye bread

Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch (silver birch will do too) into the bottom of a 5-gallon crock.

In a large kettle, boil together the honey and birch sap for 10 minutes.

Pour over chopped twigs.

When cool, strain to remove the twigs.

Return to the crock.

Spread cake of soft yeast on the slice of toasted rye bread.

Float on top of the beer in the crock.

Cover with a cloth.

Let ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle, about a week but it depends somewhat on temperature.

Bottle the beer and cap tightly.

Store in a dark place and serve it cold after the weather gets hot.

It should stand in the bottles about 3 months before using.

If opened too soon, it will foam all over and pop worse than champagne.

**This is not a drink for children (I always had it!).

**Sweet Birch, also called Black Birch… Sweet birch or Cherry birch has a fragrant bark and twigs that smell of wintergreen. The sap flows about a month later than maple and much faster than maple. You tap the trees the same as maple but must gather about 3 times as often.

**The sap also can be boiled the same as maple but the syrup is much stronger, more like molasses.

How to make birch oil:


Xylitol, also known as birch sugar, occurs naturally in small quantities in foods such as mushrooms and some berries, but is also manufactured as a neutraceutical. Its use was pioneered in Finland, where it is manufactured from birch chips.

Xylitol looks like this… basically just white, crystalline powder:

Xylitol Crystals

Obviously, xylitol is a refined sweetener, so it doesn’t contain any vitamins, minerals or protein. In that sense, it is “empty” calories.

Xylitol can be processed from trees like birch.

The birch bark source xylitol involves harvesting the bark from birch trees.

Uses of Xylitol:

Unlike other natural or synthetic sweeteners, xylitol is actively beneficial for dental health by reducing caries (cavities) to a third in regular use and helpful to remineralization.

Multiple studies utilizing electron microscopy have indicatedthat xylitol is effective in inducing remineralization of deeper layers of demineralized enamel.

At least six grams of xylitol per day, in three to five chewing episodes, is thought to be needed for dental efficacy. Xylitol also inhibits the growth of Streptococcus pneumoniae, as well as the attachment of Haemophilus influenzae on the nasopharyngeal cells. The perception of sweetness obtained from consuming xylitol causes the secretion of saliva which acts as a buffer against the acidic environment created by the microorganisms in dental plaque.

The harmful micro-organisms are starved in the presence of xylitol, allowing the mouth to remineralize damaged teeth with less interruption. This same property renders it unsuitable for making bread as it interferes with the ability of yeast to digest sugars. It is also beneficial for people suffering from metabolic syndrome, a common disorder that includes insulin resistance, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and an increased risk for blood clots.

Xylitol chewing gum appears to decrease rates of acute otitis media in children going to daycare by 25%. Xylitol nasal sprays have also been shown to decrease incidence of acute otitis media as well as being a very effective way of both assisting and stimulating the body’s own natural nasopharyngeal washing, and reducing both bacterial colonization and allergenic pollution, with their accompanying problems.

Xylithol intake daily also increases bone volume preventing osteoporosis.

Xylitol is non-fermentable and cannot be used as an energy source.

Fair evidence was found that xylitol (as chewing gum, lozenges, nasal spray, etc.) reduced the incidence of acute middle ear infection in healthy children.

Clearing nasal passages. Preparation of a nasal spray with xylitol:

Xylitol is a naturally-occurring plant-based sugar substitute that apparently has all sorts of anti-bacterial as well as anti-fungal properties. Given these properties, daily xylitol gum chewingor xylitol nasal spray use has been shown to help prevent recurrent acute ear infections and sinus infections… safe for use even in infants.


Recipe #1 (Complex):

1 cup of water (8 ounces)

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp of xylitol crystals

1/4 tsp baking soda

4 drops of grapefruit seed extract

Recipe #2:

1 cup of water (8 ounces)

1/4 – 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp of xylitol crystals

Recipe #3:

1 cup of water (8 ounces)

1/4 – 1/2 tsp of xylitol crystals

In well controlled studies, doctors in Finland found that 8 grams of xylitol,

taken orally every day, prevented about 40% of ear infections.

The regular use of oral xylitol also helps prevent heart attacks.

Xylitol is also used to heal wounds.


Xylitol has no known toxicity in humans. In one study, the participants consumed adiet containing a monthly average of 1.5 kg of xylitol with a maximum daily intakeof 430 g with no apparent ill effects.

Xylitol is often fatal to dogs. Also syrups made from xylitol may be harmful for birds.







William Arthur Clark (January 1, 1937). “History of Fracture Treatment Up to the Sixteenth Century”.The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery (Needham, MA, USA: The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Inc.) 19 (1): 61–62.

22 Trees That Can Be Tapped For Sap And Syrup







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