Chapters 13.1

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Suggested citation for this chapter.

Hu, Woo,K. (2022)Tree Bark, Cambium, And Sap. In The Student Encyclopedia of Canadian Indigenous Foods. Editor, M.N. Raizada, University of Guelph, Canada.


Description of the tree

Birch syrup comes from the Paper birch tree (Betula papyfera) as the sap form, and this tree comes from the Birch family (betulaceae). Paper birch is also known as white birch, canoe birch, and silver (Hutnik and Cunningham). Paper birch is a deciduous tree with white barks and either oval or heart blade shape leaves (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). The white barks can be chalky as they can stain clothes if someone comes in contact with the tree (Hutnik and Cunningham). The tree is thin that it is easy to peel the outer bark layer out by hand (Hutnik and Cunningham). Within the Paper birch species, there are several varieties: the Western paper birch, mountain paper birch, Alaska paper birch, Kenai birch, and Northwestern paper birch (Hutnik and Cunningham).

Paper birch grows in cold climates around 55 °F, which is also 12.8°C and seldomly to 70°F which is 21.1°C (Hutnik and Cunningham). Paper birch is in different continents as its need for water is not severe (Hutnik and Cunningham). Paper birch is in climates with short summers and long winters (Hutnik and Cunningham). Between Canada and the United States, paper birch is located in Northern Alaska, Yukon to Labrador, Newfoundland, and South to the Northernmost United States (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991).

What indigenous people use birch syrup for

Paper birch has multiple functionalities for aboriginal people in Canada. The sap, syrup, inner barks, and bark vessels are all used. The Woods Cree from Saskatchewan, Vanta Kutchin and Chipewyan from Yukon, and Fisherman Lake Slave from Northwest Territories people extracted sap from the paper birch (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). The sap is extracted around May when the trees have not grown their new leaves (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). In the outer bark layer, one v-shaped flap is cut (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). The v-shaped bark is lifted up, making a spout for the birch sap to run through (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). Birch-bark basket is placed underneath the tree to catch all the sap (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). The sap was usually added to soups or drank directly as a beverage (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). It says that the sap had a peachy flavour (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). A man boiled the birch sap into syrup and ate it with a type of bread bannock, and he created the birch syrup (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991).

Other than the birch syrup, the inner bark of the birch tree is also edible. It is eaten by the Woods Cree and northern Chipewyan people (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). It is consumed around spring time when it is fresh (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). Children ate it as a treat, and it is was also a starvation food (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). The Montagnais also eats the inner bark by grating it (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). Woods Cree people used the root bark as tea (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). Other than the edible characteristic of the birch bark, it can be used to make food storage containers and as food wrappers in British Columbia (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). Birch bark vessels are also used for food storage, cooking, and making whips (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991)


Benefits to human

Birch syrup is a sweetener, and different from its competitor maple syrup, it is a simple sugar (Cameron, 2001). Unlike maple sap which contains the complex sugar sucrose, birch syrup contains fructose and glucose (Cameron, 2001). In addition, birch syrup has a higher mineral level than maple syrup as it contains Potassium, calcium, manganese and thiamin (Cameron, 2001). Potassium is the most abundant in birch syrup out of the four (Cameron, 2001). As in the pore gold birch syrup from the Canadian birch company, one tablespoon of birch syrup has 100 mg of Potassium (The Canadian Birch Company)

Figure 1: Nutritional label of the pure gold birch syrup of the Canadian Birch Company

Potassium is an essential element to the human body; it is recommended for daily consumption of 4700mg (The importance of Potassium, 2019). Diet with Potassium can maintain blood pressure in a normal healthy range (The importance of Potassium, 2019). Since Potassium intake can help blood pressure, it can also help reduce the risk of stroke as blood pressure is related to strokes (The importance of Potassium, 2019). Besides the mineral nutrients of birch syrup, birch sap is beneficial as a medicine for the Tanaina people in Alaska and the Nakla’pamux in British Columbia (Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991). The Nakla’pamux people use birch sap as cold medicine.

Benefits to alleviate poverty

In Canada there are a few companies concentrating in the production of birch syrup, these companies can create job opportunities and make the GDP higher for Canada. There are a few companies that sell birch syrup online such as the Canadian birch company, Yukon birch, Rocky lake birchworks, Gourmet Sauvage, and Forbes wild foods. Since companies buy birch sap from collectors who are the people to collect the birch sap, they can create jobs for nearby people (Cameron, 2019). By providing nearby people the job of collecting birch sap, transportation job to deliver it to other provinces, and manufacturing jobs, it will alleviate poverty. Since most of the production site of birch syrup is near aboriginal communities, it can provide jobs specifically for them. One of the best known birch syrup company in Canada is the Canadian Birch Company. It is located in Southeast of Manitoba, where a lot of surrounding indigenous communities reside such as the Fort, Alexander, Black River First Nation people (Indigenous people and land, 2021).

Benefits to society

As a society as a whole, birch syrup brings up the GDP of Canada as more jobs and more goods are demanded and raises the recognition of indigenous food. Birch syrup and birch sap is a treasure in aboriginal people's culture. Canadians and the world get the chance to recognize how birch sap is extracted, processed, used as medicine, beverage and sweetener. They get to recognize the intelligence of aboriginal groups using inner barks as food, food wrap, and containers like bark baskets. Society can get educational aspects of birch syrup and the culture behind it. It provides consumers with another option of healthier sweeteners in their local retail store.

Benefits to the environment

Other than birch syrup benefiting society, it can also help the environment. Paper birch provides a food source for many animals. Paper birch provides moose and white-tailed deer browse (Ronald, 1991). Paper birch is a good browse for moose, especially except Winter time browse (Ronald, 1991). During summer, paper birch leaves are eaten by moose as its summer diet browse (Ronald, 1991). Snowshoe hare browses paper birch’s seeds and sap, and porcupines eat the tree's inner bark (Ronald, 1991). Many birds and small mammals eat the tree's buds, and beaver eats paper birch as well (Ronald, 1991).

Use of beechnuts by canadian indigenous peoples

The Canadian Indigenous Peoples that lived in the range of the beech trees had relatively similar uses for beechnuts with slight variations. Most Canadian Indigenous Peoples ate beechnuts raw or roasted. The Iroquois People would consume beechnuts raw, they used them when cooking, extracted the oil from the beechnuts, as well as crushing them to mix in with meat and bread (Arnason et al. 1981). The Ojibwa People, Algonquin People, Micmac people and Malecite People would consume the beechnuts fresh (Arnason et al. 1981). Along with using beechnuts as a food source, the Canadian Indigenous People would use them and other parts of the beech tree for medicinal purposes. The Ojibwa People used the bark of the beech tree, the black birch and the red-osier dogwood to cure different pulmonary issues (Arnason et al. 1981). The Malecite people used the leaves of the beech tree to treat chancre sores because of the tannins that the beech tree leaves contain (Arnason et al. 1981). Many Indigenous Peoples of Canada extracted the oil from the beechnuts to use when cooking (Fernald 1943).


Known toxic to humans or animals

Paper birch nor paper syrup have significant researchers about toxicity in humans. However, it can be a poisonous component for animals (Birch sugar is the same as xylitol and is toxic to dogs, 2021). Birch syrup or birch sugar can also be xylitol, a substance poisonous for some animals such as dogs, cats, and some ferrets (Birch sugar is the same thing as xylitol, and it’s toxic to dogs, 2021). Xylitol affects dogs the most as it has more sweet receptors (Birch sugar is the same as xylitol and is toxic to dogs, 2021). Puking, weakening, collapse, seizures, or poor coordination can be symptoms of Xylitol poisoning in dogs (Birch sugar is the same as xylitol and is toxic to dogs, 2021).

Is it difficult to cultivate today

Paper birch is not a hard plant to cultivate as it does not require a lot of water, as mentioned previously. It has tolerance to different levels of soil moisture (White birch, 2014). Paper birch can grow in different types of soils (White birch, 2014). The only minor challenge is that it is intolerant to shade. The tree needs a lot of sunlight exposure (White birch, 2014).

Is it low yielding, a wild food?

Paper birch is not low-yielding, but unfortunately, birch syrup is. It takes approximately 100 gallons of birch sap to produce 1 gallon of birch syrup (Cameron, 2019). Birch trees are smaller in diameter compared to maple trees. Therefore only one bucket of birch sap is collected from each tree (Cameron, 2019). Birch trees also have a shorter period of collection time than maple trees (Cameron, 2019). As birch sap has a lower sugar content than maple sap, compared to the yielding of maple syrup and birch syrup, production wise birch syrup is a lot more low yielding than its biggest competitor, maple syrup.


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