Forests are usually appreciated as recreational spots. On International Forest Day, we take a look at the other many benefits forests provide us with. According to forest experts, it's healthy to drink birch sap.
Forest official Ingo Esser hurries through the open-air museum in Kommern, a town in western Germany, not far from the Belgian border, to get to a small wooded area with birch trees. Visitors can spot the white tree trunks with black patterns from far away as they follow the small trail.
Esser, who heads the forest-related education center in the Eifel National Park, points to a tiny hole in one of the birch trees. It's located some ten centimeters (4 inches) above the ground. Esser used a battery powered drill to tap the tree, and then inserts a thin plastic pipe to pour the sap into a glass jar.
Small drops drip into the container. After an hour, half of the glass has already been filled with birch sap. Sometimes, the birch tree provides up to three quarters of a liter (25 ounces) in an hour, Esser said.
Birch sap, which is sweeter than regular water, is rich in sugars and proteins - and is often sold commercially in northern European countries, including Latvia, Estonia and Russia.
Forestry experts hope that International Forest Day - which is celebrated worldwide on Wednesday - teaches people about the wonders that the trees can provide.
Rich in vitamins
There's other ways of getting to the sweet water, Esser said. Instead of drilling a hole into the tree, it's also possible to dig out the roots. By cutting off a root which has the size of a finger, birch sap will drip out as well. Young birch trees also provide water if a branch is cut.
In spring, a birch tree transports some 150 to 200 liters (40 to 53 gallons) of birch sap. It flows through the tree to stimulate the tree's growth.
Lumberjacks have been known to drink the birch sap while working in the forest. They knew the water is rich in vitamins.
The sap is not only said to be beneficial for one's health in general, but also for hair growth. The birch's leaves can be used for salad as well, Esser said. According to him, tea made from dried leaves is an effective treatment for rheumatism.
A wide range of forests products
Esser brought along a wide range of things made from forest products - a bowl of plaited birch bark and birch schnapps from Minsk. He also has a bottle filled with spruce and pine cones in liquor.
Before he harvests the cones, Esser has to carefully observe the trees as the cones cannot be older than 14 days. This herb liquor is said to be effective against muscle pain and joint inflammation.
Tea made from lime-tree blossoms works best against colds, he added.
"You really start to sweat after a pot," he added.
But beyond birch sap, there are also other natural remedies that can be found in the forest - like coal.
Today, coal is generally used for barbecueing, he said, but in earlier times it was used for medical purposes as well. Charcoal was grinded in a mortar or a coffee mill - one spoon of the crushed charcoal with a bit of liquid would work as treatment for diarrhea.
"My kids had to eat that when they were sick - whether they wanted to or not," Esser said.
Today, pharmacies sell charcoal tablets which do the very same thing: They absorb toxics from the stomach. This is why charcoal also helps after a night of heaving drinking.
Willow wood is also known to have therapeutic effects. Esser tries to cut off the bark - but it's too early, he said, as only small pieces come off. He will come back in a couple of weeks to collect the bark which contains salicylic acid - not in a pure form, but as a base. Salicylic acid works against headaches.
After Esser has harvested the bark, he will then dry it at home.
Chewing the bark helps against headaches and toothache. A woman in Sweden once told him that her people still use willow bark to get rid of the pain. It's these stories that Esser tells visitors, because it sticks with them, he said.
But these kind of forest products are hardly in use anymore as people start to forget about their benefits. According to Esser, it's because it's not vital to people's health anymore. Especially during wartime, when people didn't have much, they turned to the woods. For instance, they made coffee from acorn which was quite an ordeal as they had to be peeled, put in water, roasted and then crushed in order to be usable as coffee grounds.
Today, most people are just too comfortable, Esser observed. They don't want to integrate the tedious work into their fast-paced lives.
"The forest is not only for recuperation and strolling around," he said. "It can also provide many products that are good for your health."
Author: Anja Fähnle / sst
Editor: Cyrus Farivar