Outside our kitchen are a dozen birch trees. Before I became a forager I thought that they were utterly worthless and should be replaced by useful trees; apples, plums…you know the kind. I used to think that there was no point in planting a tree that didn’t produce things. What a complete wally I was. Quite when I realised how amazing Birch trees are is a bit of a mystery, but all I know is that they are quite magical & that I’m still finding out why they should be grown in every garden – and for that matter, on every street.. OK, so they are bit straggly and unmanicured looking, but bear with me – this is the tree for you, I promise you.
Birches are known as pioneer trees; remember the images of trees growing through the abandoned streets of Chernobyl? They were Birch trees. Look down the side of a dual carriage way, on the sidings of railway lines – chances are you’ll be whizzing past Birch. They creep into neglected spaces in the blink of an eye, there they are. Its ability to grow in hostile places isn’t fluke – it’s because Birch trees have a canny knack of seeking out nutrients others don’t notice. If Birch were a type of person they’d be the wiry but strong type, who eats like a bird yet has the energy of a Amazonian; they’d be the kind of person who takes very little but gives a lot – an awful lot; this to be precise is what they give.
Here is the caveat bit. What follows are a list of attributes *some* people believe to be true – lots of amazing research is going on into proving the value of Birch, but for the moment, read what I’m writing, but I can’t say it’s gospel as lots of it isn’t proven by clinical trials (you might just have to be a synthetic medicine made by big fat Pharma to do that..)
Birch trees are one of those clever trees that produce a drink – in the early spring, before the buds start opening birch trees will suck up huge amounts of magical water from the ground (ok not magical but nearly) this water is crammed full of goodies – you can buy birch water all over the place now (it’s the new, old coconut water you know) it contains a special sugar – Xylitol, which actually helps prevent cavities (how brilliant is that?), saponins (which lower cholesterol) compounds that detoxify your liver, and kidneys, it’s got salicylate in it (natures original & best aspirin), anti-inflammatories and anti bacterial properties. A sip of birch water will restore all of your hair / turn greys into shimmering golden locks. (OK I fibbed about that one, just a bit)..it’s bonkers and brilliant – and don’t even get me started on its buds, its leaves, its bark, and even the fungi that grows on it…Birch it’s your buddy.
So how do you tap into this elixir? Well it’s as easy as pie – when sap is rising you can tap birch trees just like those good folks in Canada do with Maple – a spile & a bucket or, you can do what I do, with less pretty looking kit, but just as effective.
You’ll need – a collection of empty freezer proof bottles all fitting the same lid, a drill, a length of brewing tube & if you’re on a windy hill, some bungie cords. Oh, and as much space in your freezer as you can get away with without causing marital ructions
The sap tapping season is short – it’s a bit like waiting for an avocado to ripen; as soon as you get a sniff of spring in the air, start checking for sap rising – you’ll know sap is rising by breaking the end of a twig every few days..if a bead of sap forms at the end of the twig you’ve stuck lucky. The tapping window is only a few weeks & if it gets cold, the sap might stop for a while.
So the bead of sap has appeared, you’re ready to go – this is my way of tapping & storing sap – give it a go & let me know how your hair loss reversal is going..
– drill a hole a tiny bit smaller than the diameter of the tube into the lid of your bottle, and next to that a little hole for air to escape.
-insert the tube into the whole on the lid, secure onto your bottle.
– drill the same sized hole at a slight upward angle about 7 cms into the tree (you are about to fall in love with it) – swoon with delight as when you as you put out your drill bit, sap gushes out of the tree – you have turned on your tap of wonders.
push the tubing into the hole in your tree (give her a hug, you know you want to)
Watch as sap drips into the bottle. Amazing. Now you might have a slow drip (water torture style) or a leaky tap (the washer is going) they all give a different flow – you can try to get better flow but I stick with my first drill unless it’s not producing anything.
– Now prepare for feeling like you’ve got a new born – every few hours your bottle could fill up, so go out with an empty & a spare lid when you check on the bottle. When it’s nearly full, replace it with an empty container & secure the lid on your full bottle.
Now at this point you can guzzle your water, but I have other plans…
If you want to keep your water, I’d recommend freezing it until you want a birchy beverage.
Keep collecting your sap until just as soon as it started, the sap stops running. Remove your tube & say thanks to your tree.
What you do next is up for debate – people traditionally plug the hole in the tree with a piece of hard, but I have a friend who is a tree surgeon and he told me not to – the sap is full of coagulants and anti fungals (of course – did I not mention those?) so I leave my holes, they go a bit gunky (like a scab) and heal themselves without the risk of bacterias being introduced via the plug. Do as you wish – I’m just a leaf licker, not a tree surgeon.
Now, here is the fun bit. If you want to make Birch Syrup and YOU SHOULD, thaw the first third of the bottles of water – taste it, it is SO sweet – sugar thaws at a lower temperature than water, so you’ve already concentrated the amount of sugar by 3 x – you can do this again at least once, and then put the water back in the freezer to drink later.
Put your sweet nectar into a wide pan, place on a low heat and reduce the liquid until it turns caramel (keep an eye on it towards the end – a reduce syrup is amazing, a burnt pan is not.) Your house will smell like a toffee factory, your taste buds will not of ever tasted anything like it – bitter, sweet, malty, deep – just amazing.
Drizzle it on a crème caramel, crumble on cocoa nibs, add a violet and crushed butter biscuit & that pointless Birch tree suddenly becomes just a bit useful & ever so delicious.