Survival Foraging: Post 3 Trees

Posted: April 10, 2012 in Wilderness Survival
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Another entry into my Survival Foraging Series



Betula species

Habitat: Grows in most environments from dry slops to muskeg and peat bogs

Uses: Bark, Sap

The white papery bark of some species makes a pleasant tea with a faint caramel odor.  First peel off thin outer strips of bark from a tree and rinse them to remove dust, contaminents and flaked bark. Using only a handful per person pour boiling water over the bark and steep for 3-5 minutes.

The inner bark of the white birch can be ground down into a flour and used as an emergency food stuff and in place of bread.

Sap tapped from the tree is slightly sweet and can be used just as is, or it can be boiled down to make a syrup similar to that made from maple trees.  The sap runs for two weeks or so a time of the year when the nights are freezing, but the days are warm.  At the beginning of the “season” the sap will be clear, and towards the end it will be milky and bitter.  These milky/bitter attributes are a sign that the season is over.  The amount of sap that is produced varies from tree to tree and year to year, so it is best to tap several at once.  The sap is very vitamin rich.

To collect sap, drill a hole in the tree about 2 inches deep and 2-3 feet from the ground.  Make a spout from a piece of metal (must be clean and rust free) and put this into the hold, then hang a bucket below the spout to catch the dripping sap.  Boil down on a stove or outdoors over a wood fire (BE CAREFUL NOT TO BURN THE SAP).  In Cooking Alaskan it is recommended to constantly stir once the sap begins to thicken.  You have to start out with quite a large amount of sap, it must be reduced about 35 times its volume to make a thick syrup! This process can take between 12 hours to boil 25 gallons, so be prepared. This is in contrast to maple syrup, where it only requires about half as much boiling, so we are not as lucky as our northeastern brethren.  In some countries such as Russia and Northern Europe, the sap is fermented to make wine and vinegar, and can also be used to make birch beer.

Native/Traditional Uses: The bark was used to wrap around fractures, rolled into a tube to call moose, cut into strips to make goggles to prevent snow-blindness.  The bark was also used to make containers of various sizes to carry and store things, as well as to make drinking cups.  The fungus that grows on some birch was scraped off and used for tinder or as a tobacco substitute or additive, and could be dropped into boiling water to produce a tea.  Sap was used as a gargle for mouth sores, and a wash for skin ailments.

Chemically the birch contains significant amount of methyl salicylate the same compound as aspirin! So teas from leaves and bark are often used for headaches and other pain ailments.  Birch leaf infusions are often recommended for those with urinary problems and kidney stones.

Shelters and huts using birch bark are nearly waterproof, and can be molded using wet birch bark which becomes very pliable when soaked.  In pioneer cabins birch bark was often used as sheeting under the sod roofs and walls.  Birch trees are often great companions to gardens and composting as it is believed that fermentation of the compost is encouraged by the secretions of birch roots.  It is also recommended to plant near birch as it often helps along ailing and sickly plants.

CAUTION:  For those who are sensitive to aspirin or young children should avoid birch products or prolonged use of containers made from birch bark.  Generally the tea is quite safe as it is not “pharmaceutical grade” but caution should be exercised nonetheless.


Aspen (Aspen/cottonwood)

Populus trichocarpa (cottonwood),

Populus tremuloides (Aspen)


Cottonwood ranges from kodiak island to the kenai peninsula to the Alaskan panhandle. Aspen is common from the Brooks range south.  They are abundant in river valleys, flood plains and open forests, aspen favor south slops, open woods and banks of creeks.

Uses: Catkins, inner bark, cambium, buds

Catkins of the Aspen can be eaten raw and are a source of vitamin C, they can also be added to soups and stew, but the bitter flavors often relegate them to survival foodstuffs.  The cambium (thin layer between outer bark and inner sapwood) is know to be anourishing food.  Natives would scrape it away, and fry it in grease, boil it or ground and used as a flour substitute, and was often used during famines.  The cambium may be collected in any season, but is most palatable in the spring, when the sap is flowing (to minimize impact collect from pruned branch or downed tree).

Bark of Poplars are high in glycosides sailicin and populin which is very much like aspirin and effective in reducing pain, fever and inflammations.  Decoctions and tinctures are made for arthritis, uriniary tract inflammations, diarrhea and upset stomachs.  A poultics can be made for muscle aches, sprains or swollen joints.

The wood was used to make craties, paper and utensils.  Occasionaly cottonwood was used to make dug-out canoes and cabins.  The athabascans smoke fish with cottonwood, and use the ashes to wash clothes and floors.  A Soldotna man claims that 1 teaspoon of cottonwood ashes replaces ½ teaspoon of baking soda in recipes.  Aspen is us collected in Sweden to be used to feed sheep throughout the winter months.  Trappers often used aspen as bait in beaver traps.

Balm of Gilead

famous in biblical times to treat piles, burns, cuts, diaper rash and assorted skin ailments.  For nasal congestion, place a dab of salve inside nostril or boile one tablespoon of salve in water and inhale vapors.  Spread the salve on horse saddle sores and animal wounds.  Buds are frequently added to herbal salved, and are  ahealing agent but also anti-oxidant so they prevent rancidity.

1 cup balsam poplar buds (cottonwood)

1 ½ cups lard

1 dropper liquid vitamin E

Place buds and lard on top of double boiler, boild water in lower pan. Heat (covered) for 1-2 hours then strain through muslin cloth. Squeeze well to extract as much oil as possible. Discard buds, return oil to pan and add Vitamin E, stir
well.  Pour into wide mouthed containers, when cool, cap containers.  (If desired this can be made with olive oil and thickened with beeswax)



Picea glauca (white spruce)

Picea sitchensis (Sitka Spruce)

Picea mariana (Black Spruce)


White Spruce often grows intermixed with birch and is the dominant tree of interior alaska, growing as far north as the Brooks range and as far south as British Columbia.  Sitka is most common in coastal forests, it ranges from cook inlet and kodiak island, and is very salt tolerant. Black Spruce is most tolerant of wet conditions and is often found in muskeg or swampy areas.  Black spruce is found in northern alaska, and as far south as british columbia

Uses: Wood (for building and burning), Needles, cambium (inner bark), sap.

Spruce tip tea is a favorite in northern climates, gather handfuls and steep in covered teapot with hot water, sweeten with honey, orange, cinnamon, cloves or brandy.  It has also been said that the fresh tips of the spruce can be used in a simliar fashion, and can be dried for year round use.  Spruce tea is an excellend source of vitamin C, and on captain cooks expedition was made into a beer to ward off scurvy.

Spruce Syrup and tea is recommended for coughs, colds, congestion and urinary problems. Inhaling the vapor was also reported to help bronchitis.

The sap itself has been sued since ancient times for helaing burns and sores (as with most saps it cuts it is a tight seal like peroleum jelly so there is a lesser chance of infection on top of the other qualities).  Pitch has been emploed for medicinal plasters for back-ahce and head-ache.  The pitch has also been used for caulking boats and shleters.  The pitch was also used as a type of chewing gum, and is used by professional athlets as it keeps the mouth moist and has none of the drawbacks of chewing tobbaco or commercial chewing gums.

Young red male spruce buds have a zesty flavor and can be chopped and added to salads or as spice to meat.  The soft centers of young cones can be roasted in campfire coals until syrupy and then eaten.  The seeds from mature cones can be eaten as well, but it is time intensive and difficult and could only be considered as a last resort.

The cambium (inner bark) is a traditional survival food and native food source.  It is best in the early spring buy may be sued for emergencies any time of the year.  The thin layer may be eaten raw, boiled like noodles or dried and ground into flour.  Natives mashed it into a pulp and dried it into cakes, and on the trail would boil and eat it.  The cambium may also be dried and used as an ingredient for tea.  To prevent injury to the tree only used from felled or pruned branches.

The roots were used for weaving baskets, making snares, ribs for boats and the spruce boughs for impromput mattresses (I can attest to that!).

Spruce is also a wonderful aromatic, and can be fashioned into wreaths, or just the boughs brough in the home to have a more fresh scent.

Spruce tip jelly is another product that is worth having.

(recipe from

Spruce Tip Jelly

3 cup spruce tip juice

4 cups sugar

1 package pectin

Day One: Prepare the Spruce Tip Juice

1. Rinse 3-4 cups of spruce tips in cold water. Drain and then lightly chop them.

2. Place the spruce tips in a small saucepan with 3 1/2 cups cold water. Bring to a boil and then immediately remove them from the heat.

3. Transfer the tips and liquid to a heatproof bowl, cover tightly, and let rest overnight. (It was a cool evening, so I set mine out on our back porch. I don’t think it matters much whether you leave them at room temp or refrigerate them.)

Day Two: Make Your Jelly

1. Sterilize 5 half-pint jars.

2. Collect the spruce tip juice by straining the liquid through a chinois, jelly bag, or several layers of cheesecloth. (If you use a jelly bag or cheesecloth, be sure to dunk it in scalding water first — not just to cleanse it, but to hydrate it so a dry cloth doesn’t soak up that good juice.)

3. Measure 3 cups of spruce tip juice into a 6- or 8-quart saucepot. (Use only 3 cups. Adding more could screw up your set.)

4. Measure the sugar into a separate bowl.

5. Stir the entire packet of pectin into the saucepot. (I had heard some great things about MCP pectin, so I decided to see what the fuss was about. I have to say, I was impressed. The set is fabulous — a real, smooth jelly set, not like Jell-O. Also, it dissolved nicely, without lumps. As someonewho doesn’t mind using boxed pectin in simple jellies — never marmalades — where I want an easy, reliable set, I have to say I am a new fan. If you use a different brand of pectin, be sure to follow the recipe directions in that box. I’d use the proportions given for mint jelly.)

6. Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil — that is, a boil that you can’t stir down — on high heat, stirring constantly.

7. Quickly stir in the sugar. Return the mixture to a rolling boil and boil for exactly 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and skim foam. (I use a large, shallow, stainless steel spoon for skimming.)

8. Ladle or pour the hot jelly into the sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe the rims with a clean, damp cloth and secure the lids. Process in a water-bath canner, using the correct time for your altitude: 5 minutes for 0-1,000 feet above sea level, plus 1 minute for every additional 1,000 feet.

Yields about 5 half-pint jars. (If you want more than this, plan to make multiple small batches. As with most jelly recipes, doubling the batch size may mess with your set.)


Caution: Distilled spruce oils can be irritating to the skin and should be blended well with other oils to prevent this


  1. Rosalyn says:

    Cottonwoods grow very well here in the Interior, also. One of the few things I am allergic to, thought I found a place they would not grow. First thing to show up in the Spring? Cottonwoods in the yard.

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