Its that time of year again for me when spring is still a wee bit far off and sugaring is on the horizon that I think of or maybe even take part in, the harvesting of a great tree for its medicine. Birch. Which is also coupled with a special memory of my first day with my herbal teacher, Kate Gilday. Each time this time of year comes around, whether I am harvesting Birch or just go out to visit these amazing trees, I also think of Kate as this is my tradition and my way of remembering our special bonds at the macro to micro level. Birch Bark Oil making is that for me on so many levels. And at this time of year, February and March, this is what I remember.
Birch Bark Oil, is warming and soothing aromatic uplifting oil; an extraction of Birch tree trace volatile oils, a.k.a. as essential oils or phytoncides, its extracted from a Birch trees pale green cambium layer just under its bark surface. The fixed oils used that hold on to these constituents can be olive oil, almond oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil or others (see below for more) its up to you. And once this topical oil is ready, it has a sweet, soothing and warming feel that far exceeds what one may expect.
For this writing, this is strictly about making a topical oil, is used only on intact and closed skin; it is not for rashes or cuts or scrapes or wounds. And is used for achie muscles, painful joints, neck, arms, back, wrists, ankles, feet, or can be used just
as an over all massage oil.
The type of Birch used in for this preparation is usually Black Birch Bark due to it being highest in volatile oil concentrations. Yet I have also used Yellow Birch with similar effectiveness. PLEASE NOTE: this is not the making of an Essential Oil (need hundreds of pounds of Birch Bark Cambium layer); nor is this the making of Flower Essences (needing just one flower vibration and reduced several hundred times for its subtle effects). Though there are numerous ways Birch offers her healing qualities for humans and land and I love what the spirit of the plant offers us that is so beautifully represented here by me herbal mentor and teacher Kate Gilday. - "BLACK BIRCH - (Betula lenta) Gracious. Sharing one's essence without fear of rejection, hurt, etc. Getting in touch with one's inner radiance." You can go here for more on what Kate offers. http://www.woodlandessence.com/essences.htm
HARVESTING BRANCHES FOR THE BARK:
First, accurately I.D. the tree. Bring an experienced person, use an I.D. guide, and do the scratch and sniff test. If the scratched bark smells like Wintergreen, then you have Birch. Often, Black Birch can be confused with Black Cherry, which when its bark is scratched smells like Bitter Almond and is the tell tale sign that you do not have Black Birch but Black Cherry.
Next, before even considering to cut any of her branches, ask the wisdom and spirit of the tree permission to choose some of her branches for the oil you would like to make. Visualize what you are doing for the tree to understand. Think about how you would like to make it into an oil for you or a loved one. Stay with the tree until you can feel in your heart an ok. Thank the tree. Give a gift of thanks, either the traditional that has been used by the original peoples of this land - tobacco; other types of gifts can be a shell, your hair, a flower, etc. and a sincere deeply felt sense of gratitude. Then and only then look at which branches would be ideal for harvesting, asking the tree the whole time to guide you. There may be some branches interfering with other branches such as that which may cross over others and hinder or complicate the tree. Again give thanks to the tree, the land and all elementals before trimming a branch. Trim only what you need. If its your first time, take only a small amount (a 12" section of a particular branch) for the experience. Later on you will then know how much it is that you or another will need. Now you can trim with clippers a small branch.
Clippers or Heavy Duty Scissors
Oil (see below)
Glass Pyrex jar or a One Quart Wide Mouth Mason Jar 2/3 full of oil.
insure this jar is not only clean but dry, any moisture left in this jar will
cause the end product to spoil.
Large Pot filled ½ way with cool water
CHOOSING THE OIL:
Olive Oil – healing on its own, warming, heavy so protective to skin, can ‘drag’ and
pull on the skin if its used for a massage oil, has a light scent of olives. Has the
aroma like olives). Texture is heavy and oily and may overpower a blend with its scent.
Almond Oil – a lighter weighted, unscented oil; since it’s a nut oil, some may have an
allergy to this oil. Light, slightly sweet and light nutty. Texture can leave
a slight oily feeling on the skin. Absorbs semi-quickly.
Apricot Oil - Somewhat oily, absorbs semi-quickly.
Avocado Oil - Thick, leaves a fatty, almost waxy feel to the skin.
Coconut Oil – very cooling, light coconut scent; does not drag or pull the skin.
Grape Seed Oil - cooling, thin but leaves a glossy film on the skin; good as a massage oil.
Light, slightly sweet with a hint of a nutty aroma.
Jojoba Oil - Light to medium in aroma, not as sweet as the nut oils. The aroma is distinct but pleasant.
Texture is light and silky. Absorbs well.
Sesame Oil – warming, having a light sesame scent; also may drag and pull on the skin; has a
distinctive sweet, nutty sesame scent; may overpower a blend with its scent. Texture is
mildly thick, leaves an oily film on the skin.
Safflower Oil – neither warming or cooling; no scent; does not drag & pull the skin; very neutral.
Texture is very light and healing.
REMOVING BARK FROM BRANCH:
Please do remember to honor and give credit to the Nature that surrounds us, whether you are indoors or outdoors and remember this tree, even though one did not take the trees life, we are using this trees limbs. You can burn sage, a candle or just have words for remembering the tree. But we must do something to remember. Its the only way. Creator, Great Spirit, all that is in Universal Wisdom is in every organism we touch, including ourselves.
Situate yourself at a table or on a clean tarp or cloth on the ground, prepare larger branches into smaller sections by cutting them 6 to 8 inches long that are 1/2 inch or greater in circumference, these larger in circumference branches will have the bark shaved from the branch. The remaining smaller branches can be cut with a scissors.
Organize into two batches, the smaller one for cutting with heavy duty scissors and the larger branches for shaving with the knife. Prepare your jar of oil filled half way up in the jar. Have your large bowl in front of you and start trimming and cutting like this: cut up all the smaller branches first into the bowl first, every so often remove cut up pieces and place into the jar of oil, with a wooden stick push down the clipped pieces so that it goes under the oil line, this prevents loss of volatile constituents which is an integral part of this remedy. Continue to cut like this until you’ve cut up all your little branches.
Next shave the larger branches using a sharp knife. Shave downward and away from your hand and body. Shave just under the bark down thru the light green cambium layer to just under that as this, the cambium layer is what holds active plant principles. You know you’ve shaved off all the cambium layer when the branch you’re shaving has a whitish wood color. If the branch you're shaving suddenly has an orange hue, this tells you that you did not get all of the cambium layer and this pale green layer is now oxidizing. Get deeper! This is the trees medicine for you. Again, as you accumulate shaved pieces in the bowl, every few minutes stop and put the shavings into the oil as this prevents loss of delicate essential oils (wintergreen) from also oxidizing which then looses its effectiveness for muscle pain relief.
Whatever size jar you do end up using, always make sure the oil covers the bark – the bark should never, ever come above the oil line and into contact with air. If it does your oil preparation will oxidize, so, always add more oil to this if the bark does not remain below the oil level. Doing this prevents your efforts from ruining.
THE DOUBLE BOILING STAGE:
Now put the mason jar into the cool water bath. Make sure the water comes up high enough around the jar but not so high that it makes the jar start to float. The jar needs to set in the water, not float on the water bath. Otherwise, it will topple over during cooking time.
Next, turn flame on low and heat oil to 110 to 120 degrees, mixing with a wooden stick from time to time to evenly distribute the heat. Test the oil temp, not the water temp, with a food thermometer. If no food thermometer, use the tip of your clean dry finger pad. If it feels a little too warm to your skin you know it’s a good temp. If it feels hot or sharp its too warm which then you’ll need to turn down the flame or remove the pot completely from the flame until it turns just warm again. Ideally, a thermometer is best.
Or if the flame is already as low as possible, then turn off the flame for an hour or so and return to cooking. And point here, those wooden sticks you're using to mix, there is no need to remove the sticks, they can stay in the jar the whole cooking time.
Again, make sure the bark remains below the oil level, if it does not, just add more oil. Doing this prevents the product from spoiling.
Cook the Birch Oil for 3 to 6 days. Keep adding more water around the outside of the jar into the pot as the water level evaporates. Of course, you’ll need to turn off the flame when you go to sleep or leave the house. Cover the jar with a lid and then cover the pot not with the pots lid but with a heavy non-lint kitchen towel. This will contain the heat and keep the Birch Oil processing longer. However when the birch oil is cooking, don’t cover the oil because moisture from the boiling water will condensate on the lid and drip into the oil, this then sets the stage for oil spoilage. Lastly, if you are unable to heat the bark for at least 8 hrs in a day, then extend the heating time another day or two. As you’re heating this bark, every so often smell it too. At some point you will start to smell the essential oils of Wintergreen in the oil. Lovely scent. And if you do this year after year, you're nose will be able to determine just the right time for when the oil is ready.
AFTER 3 to 6 DAYS OF HEATING:
Remove jar from water bath. Dry the outside of the jar well. Now you have two choices on how to preserve for shelf life.
I’d suggest to use the 2nd as experience tells me it lasts longer.
FIRST CHOICE: strain bark out from the oil through a sieve to remove the bark and return the oil to the jar. Add to the jar 400iu capsule of Vitamin E to every 2 cups of oil (helps prevent rancidity). Put on a clean dry lid and place on a shelf away from heat and light.
SHELF LIFE: might last up to 1 yr. Its better to place this in the refrig if you want to ensure it lasts for 2 yrs. You can take a little oil out of the jar each time you need to use it and put into a smaller jar, this jar can stay out of the refrig., at room temperature making it easier to use than from direct from refrig.(brrh) but it won't last as long. Maybe a few months at best. You'll know ...
SECOND CHOICE: don’t strain out bark from oil, do add some Vitamin E (same as above), no need to put into your refrig., just keep jar on a shelf away from heat and light.
SHELF LIFE: a definite 2 years. As you use the oil, just remove the oil from the jar, BUT as you do this, remember you will also need to remove some bark from the oil too, because at some point as you use the oil, the bark will be exposed to air and make the whole thing spoil. Adding the oil you're using to a smaller jar will be helpful in using, and again, this jar of oil will only last a few months too. Maybe 6 months. You'll know ...
... REGARDING SPOILAGE:
There’s always a possibility for spoilage to happen. For me the best way to determine if my oil has gone “bad” is to smell it. If you can’t smell well then have someone else do the smelling for you. What you’re looking for are 2 types of scents: a rotten scent and oh yeah, its smells rotten, like something just died. And then there’s the bitter scent, which is the scent of rancidity.
Fortunately, this oil is not one we ingest, and if it is used when rancid or other, its not injurious but you’ll smell really badly. However I would not make this a practice because I do believe rancidity over time could be unhealthy for us. So please continue to use your nose and sniff over the months to determine how your oil is doing.
Precautions aside, this is a lovely oil that has a light wintergreen scent, feels good on the skin, is soothing and relaxing especially as part of a massage, and, can become a wonderful tradition at this time of the year when we’re all patiently (or maybe not so patiently) waiting for the green to arrive.
It’s those quiet moments in the garden, when there’s no other human but just you and the outside world, where our greatest gifts and shifts occur.
Spring time for me is that special time of the year when I so look forward to just touching the sweet scented cold soil, swirling it around with the tips of my cold fingers … just because.
It’s simply too early to plant. Too early to uncover the beds, but just being there with all the early spring scents to just relish in our dynamic relationship with all garden beings. One never knows what experience lays ahead.
Well, this one happened to me some years ago when I was doing my usual early spring garden stroll through the shaded protected beds, taking notice of who might be sending up its first spring shoots so that I could be the first to say hello.
Sitting down on the stone wall that my friend Yemana and I built, to get a closer look at the wild ginger patch and you know, to just touch and swirl the soil around. No words are necessary here, I just surrender my wants and needs to the needs of the Nature outside of me.
As I sat on this cold damp stone wall, I touched the leaves that covered the soil and began moving them aside to see who I might find under its cover. Slowly and methodically I gently moved the leaves and maybe a little too quickly too, as before the next stroke of my hand, I stopped because my eye caught the movement of a tiny rolling white spider egg which belonged to a garden Wolf Spider. And there she, spider, went, scurrying in the other direction, surely wanting to save herself from my clumsy freezing hand. But then, she stopped. Turned around and looked right at me!!! She said to me ‘give me my egg’ or maybe she said ‘that’s my family there’ or maybe even, ‘I need my egg’. Whatever she said, I knew that she wanted her egg.
She looked at me, then at her egg and then back at me again. Yep, she wanted her egg.
Okay well I did not doubt any of what I heard, felt, saw. So I followed her requests. Did what she had asked and here’s how it all unfolded. I slowly moved my hand over to her egg to carefully pick up its delicate white casing. Holding it carefully between my thumb and fore finger, I slowly moved my hand towards her. Stopping a moment to show her that I had her egg between my fingers. I did this first from a long distance from her so that she could see what it was that I was doing, and then I got a little closer and showed her again. She then walked a little closer to me. Oh my goodness I thought. She understands. Darn it. So I advanced my hand a little closer to her. She advanced her body a little closer to me. Gradually we both got closer and closer.
As my giant hand approached her tiny body I rested it on top of the soil so that it would be right at her level. Still my fingers were carefully holding her egg. Cautiously she came up to my two fingers that were holding on to her egg.
She reached up.
Clamped on to her egg with her front legs.
I did not put it down on the ground.
I actually gave her, her egg!
She let me hand her, her egg !
Spider picked up her egg right out from my fingers.
She then scurried away.
My life changed forever, from that moment in time with a light stricken sonic boom went my senses, to the farthest east and west, and my crown center opened to the heavens and my feet were grounded in every earthly sense. We shared that white egg for one flash of a second. My pink flesh to her hairy pedipalps (her two front legs). Is this love? This is love.
We both followed and trusted our feminine instincts – mother to mother. Creator to creator.
This was about us knowing our place in the garden. We are from the same mold, some where’s in our distant connections. Mothers. Both givers of life, dynamic forces in deep mutual relationship.