At ECOS, our environmental school, I barely get to tantalize the 4th graders with the highlight to their trip in my introduction to the day. Some kid always brings it up first. “Can we go to the bubble gum tree?”
I wasn’t ready for this question when I first started teaching in the program. I didn’t know what tree they were talking about. My first thought was the spruce. Woodsmen used to pinch off nubs of sap from the bark and chew it like gum. But how could this be it? The stuff tastes awful. The kids can’t possibly be all hyped up about such nasty tasting tree gum.
My only other thought was the black birch, Betula lenta. Now that smells great and was used to flavor candies, gelatin and of course, bubble gum. Kids could get psyched about that. My colleagues later confirmed that this is the tree they touted as the “Bubble Gum Tree”.
Kids don’t seem to be disappointed that they can’t pluck off pieces of bubble gum like they envisioned. The flavor can be detected in the twigs. Just under the bark one can smell oil of wintergreen. They light up when they find their own bubble gum tree using the scratch and sniff method. Scratched twigs smell so deliciously cool, fresh and minty. I let them collect a 6-inch section and then share how I make birch bark tea. Here’s how:
It’s the twigs that you’ll need, so tall adult trees with branches out of reach will not do. Saplings or seedlings will need to supply twigs within reach. My backyard is full of B. lenta trees, so I frugally trim a few branches here, a few there, or when I have to get rid of a wayward seedling, I at least use it for tea.
Strip the leaves off. Break up the twigs to be 2-4 inches long, or however short they need to be to fit into a pan. In doing so, expose the cambium, where the oil of wintergreen can be detected in the sap. I strip the bark on a couple sides of the twig. Fat twigs don’t contribute much, so stick to flexible twigs less than 1/8 inch thick I’d say. Just keep sniffing as you go to stick with those end twigs that have the most odor.
Cover your collection of twigs with water. Simmer – don’t boil. You want to extract the oil of wintergreen flavoring from the twigs but you don’t want to boil the flavoring away or make it taste harsh. Your kitchen will smell great during this process!
On this hot summer day, I’m thinking about making birch tea using the sun tea method. I imagine, putting the twigs in a clear container out in the sun for a while might extract the flavor as well. I haven’t tried it yet, but maybe you can give it a go and let me know.
Once the water is nicely brownish, I call it finished. You want to separate the water from the twigs and other stuff you don’t want to swallow. I often use cheesecloth, but a paper towel serves the same purpose as a filter. I just put it in the mouth of my container and pour my tea right through it.
At this time of year, I stick my tea in the fridge to drink cold. In the winter, I prefer it warm. I have a sweet tooth and sugar usually goes in other teas, but black birch tea tastes just fine as-is.
At the end of our day, among the many frameworks-oriented lessons they’ve learned, my kids go home with lots of super skills. They’ve gained some plant identification skills, learned to look closely at nature and used their senses. Lastly, they realize there is specialness in plants. Well, at least one plant in particular. That’s my particular passion that I hope they pick up on – the unique world of plants.
Garden fare is not just limited to your vegetable garden. Do you have day lilies blooming in your yard now? They are quite edibly delicious. If you are familiar with Asian cuisine, you may be familiar with eating lilies. Blossoms are sometimes stuffed. I like to eat the buds. Here’s how:
It is called “day lily” because each day, one flower in the cluster blooms. They take turns. Tomorrow’s is fine, but the next day’s bud and the following day is the best. Any further than that, and they are kind of small.
Here are buds of just the right size.
Just the right amount for a nice side dish for two.
Be conservative in your picking so that the beautiful orange blossoms can continue to decorate your landscape.
Prepare the buds just like you would green beans. I like to steam my green beans. They won’t take as long to cook though. They’re just tender little things.
Then, I season with butter and a a bit of salt, but do whatever you like.
I’ve tried the buds raw and don’t care for them as they leave a nose-scrunching aftertaste.
Enjoy your new found flower garden side dish.
Copyright © 2009. NaturePods. All Rights Reserved.