Tree Bark as an Emergency Food

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bark_piecesAn almost forgotten food from the wild is that which comes from the bark of trees.  Once a staple, now it is barely known even as a coarse survival food.  I myself have been slow coming to it even with wild edible plants as a major preoccupation since my teens.  An obvious possibility for why tree bark has not been found much in modern cuisine is that it doesn’t taste good.  The modern imagination easily responds to the notion of tree bark as food with images of gnawing on trees – not exactly as exciting as fishing, hunting, picking mushrooms, or picking berries.  However, perhaps that assumption is wrong.  Maybe delicious foods can be prepared from tree bark.

By Nathaniel Whitmore, a Contributing Author to SHTFBlog and SurvivalCache

I have in front of me eleven books on wild edibles.  At first glance at the table of contents of each book, or the text or index if the plants weren’t listed there, I found nothing in ten of the books  related to tree barks as edibles.  Euell Gibbons (Stalking the Wild Asparagus) and others discuss Black Walnuts and Hickory for nuts.  Lee Allen Peterson (Edible Wild Plants) discusses the leaves of Basswood.  Bradford Angier (Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants) discusses the seeds of Maple and, of course, that the sap is boiled into Maple syrup.  …And the list goes on of other foods from the trees.  Only in one, A Naturalists Guide to Cooking with Wild Plants by Connie and Arnold Krochmal, did I find that the authors went on to discuss harvesting and preparing Maple bark.  They have a recipe for Maple bark bread that uses, along with other typical ingredients for bread, only ½ cup of all-purpose flour to 2 cups of ground Maple bark.  Another recipe for porridge is a typical porridge recipe with only Maple bark (cooked like farina, grits, or oats), along with a suggestion to spread it out to chill and thicken before browning in oil.

Cuisine and Nutrition

maple_treeI have not yet tried Maple (Acer spp.) porridge.  I have made porridge from Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) but only because I have acquired out-of-date stock from herbs stores here-and-there that I worked for.  The powdered bark is quite costly to eat like a breakfast cereal.  It is sold mostly for home-made lozenges and to add to smoothies.  Because the bark is quite mucilaginous, it is a great ingredient for do-it-yourself lozenges for sore or dry throat.  I like to always keep some in a convenient storage spot.  When I have plenty, I like to cook the powdered Elm bark with Maple syrup (and a little salt) for a real breakfast from the trees.  I have not yet attempted to powder the bark itself, though I do intend to.  Powdering bark is one of those things that is high up on my list of things to do that I never get around to doing.  Again, a survival situation might just re-prioritize that list.  The shredded bark is also readily available through commercial sources and is prepared as a cold infusion to produce a thick, moistening drink or ingredient.

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According to Daniel Moerman in Native American Food Plants, Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) was cooked by the Ojibwa.  Apparently they believe it tastes like eggs.  I have chewed it and infused it for “tea”, but will certainly have to try to prepare it like scrambled eggs!  I doubt it is all that similar, but I do not doubt that it can be prepared so that it tastes good.  Remember, much of foraging is about timing.  Not only is bark easier to peel off the tree in the spring (when the sap is flowing), but it also is thick, juicy, and milder tasting than other times of the year.  Certainly, timing is important for Ash bark and the others.  Though, if starving to death you might eat tree bark even if it wasn’t the ideal harvest season and even if it didn’t taste like eggs.

white_pine_barkWhite Pine (Pinus strobus) and other evergreens were vital survival foods for Native Americans in cold areas.  Although they often have too much astringency and pitchy consistency to be ideal foods, they also have vitamin C, bioflavonoids, and many important medicinal constituents.  It would be interesting, and potentially important in a survival scenario, to look into the nutritional constituents of various barks.  It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand that Pine bark has lots of vitamin C, but what about the macronutrients?  Are barks able to provide sufficient sugar, protein, or fat?  Sugar seems the most notable macronutrient from bark, but I still wonder how much is there.  Certainly, Maple bark can taste remarkably sweet, like Maple syrup.  Clearly it has sugar in it.  The benefits of bark as a survival food are at least partially illustrated by the Natives formerly feeding Cottonwood (Populus spp.) bark to horses.  Certainly, humans have different nutritional requirements than the four-legged grazers, though I still think it says something that the deer, other wild animals, and horses can glean nutrition from bark.

Basswood (American Linden, Tilia americana) is unique as a food tree in that it produces large broad leaves that are edible right off the tree.  Young twigs and buds were cooked by Chippewa.  By this I would assume that the bark is also mild and edible.  However, I turned to Moerman’s book Native American Medicinal Plants to learn that the Cherokee used the bark for diarrhea and the Iroquois used as a diuretic, which has me wondering if the bark is too astringent and drying to use as food.  Of course, many such remedies are mild enough to eat or can be prepared to be more food quality and less medicinal.  Generally though, diarrhea remedies are astringent and can cause constipation when not needed for runny stool.  Moerman did also report that the Cherokee used during pregnancy for heartburn and weak stomach and bowels.  If it was used during pregnancy, I imagine it is mild enough to eat.  Basswood bark is now bumped up to the top of the list of wild foods to try out this spring.

Medicinal Uses of Tree Bark

Medicines from tree barks are many.  Though this article focuses on edible barks, it would not be complete without mention of medicinal uses.  In addition to those already discussed above, the medicinal barks included many categories, such as astringents, cough remedies, blood-moving medicinals, and pain relievers.

aspirin_vintage_advertisement_willowWillow (Salix spp.) was an original source of a well-known medicine known as salicylic acid (named after Willow).  Like the drug Aspirin (which is named after Meadowsweet which is currently Filipendula, but formerly Spiraea), Willow is used for pain, to thin the blood, and for fevers.  Salicylic acid is commonly used for acne, dandruff, and warts.  Poplars (Populus spp.) are closely related to Willow both botanically (though many people confuse Poplars and Birch, or Betula spp.) and medicinally.  Poplars have largely fallen out of use in modern times, but formerly were commonly employed as medicinals – the bark used like Willow, and especially the resinous buds used for coughs.

Oaks (Quercus spp.) and many other trees have bitter-tasting astringency.  Astringents tone tissue, remove inflammation, and stop discharge.   They are important medicines that are indicated for damp, inflamed conditions like diarrhea, rashes, bleeding wounds, and sore throats.  Astringents are also used for daily maintenance like washing the face and brushing teeth.  In small quantities, they are used to maintain tissue integrity of the gums and digestive system.

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Like Cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.), our Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is used to stimulate circulation and clean the blood.  The bark is delicious as tea, and can be combined with other root beer ingredients like Black Birch (Betula lenta).  The leaves of Sassafras are mucilaginous as well as spicy and can be prepared as food.  They are used in gumbo.  As an aromatic, blood-cleansing medicinal, Sassafras is used to treat skin disorders, arthritis, and to warm up the body.  The FDA has a controversial ban on Sassafras and the oil derived from it, safrole.

cherries_cherry_treePerhaps one of best-known cough remedies, Cherry Bark (Prunus spp.) has been used for ages.  My guess is that Cherry became a standard flavor for cough syrups largely because the bark was a standard medicine for coughs, even though the bark does not exactly taste like the fruit.  It does have a distinct Cherry flavor, but even more distinct is the cyanide flavor, especially in the fresh bark.  Because of the toxic properties, the use of fresh Cherry bark has been discouraged in the literature.  Though, the fresh bark is used medicinally and is significantly stronger than the dried bark.  The dried bark is available through commercial distributions.  Especially the wilted leaves have been known to cause poisoning in farm animals, so it seems the toxic properties spike during drying.  There are also various ideas about the best time to harvest.  Since I am not a chemist, I cannot say much with authority about cyanide content.  Consider yourself warned, however.  I encourage you to do your own research (before you find yourself starving or coughing to death in a Cherry forest).  Since this is such a valuable medicine I do indeed recommend learning about Cherry bark.  In my experience it is a top remedy for coughs and I assume it has many other uses in line with how Peach (Prunus persica) is used in Chinese medicine, which is extensive.  If the medicinal barks were not strong-natured and somewhat toxic, they would have been discussed earlier as edible barks.  It is precisely because they are strong that they are medicinal.  

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) bark is very medicinal.  It is one of the strongest antifungal herbs and is well-known as a remedy for intestinal parasites.  The inner bark stains yellow, as do the green hulls and leaves.  These parts also give off a distinct aroma that can help with identification and are doubtlessly related to the medicinal virtues.  Of course, Black Walnut is also known for its nuts, which are important survival food.     

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9 Ways Birch Bark Can Save Your Life In An Emergency

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9 Ways Birch Bark Can Save Your Life In An Emergency Just like any other type of wood, birch bark has a variety of different beneficial uses, although harvesting this timber must be done so carefully. Should you remove the inner layer of bark from any living tree, it could cause irreversible harm to said …

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7 Incredible Tools The Native Americans Crafted From Tree Bark

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7 Survival Items The Native Americans Made From Tree Bark

Most of us see little use for bark. We peel it before we build with it, we trim it off before smoking fish or game, and we generally don’t see much value in it as firewood or a dependable heat source.

Native people, though, had a much different viewpoint. They used bark from many trees as a resource for numerous solutions, but there’s a trick to working with this material.

Paper birch is the bark of choice for bark crafters, and the Ojibway took barkcraft to a new level thanks to the fact that birch grew everywhere they lived. Other tribes had to make-do with stiffer and less pliable resources, although slippery elm, willow and aspen offered workable solutions.

Harvesting Bark

Be careful with living, green trees. If you remove too much bark, you will potentially kill the tree. In fact, if you cut the bark from a tree around its circumference, it will be dead in weeks, if not months. Native peoples would sometime “girdle” a tree. This involved removing bark around the full circumference of the tree; this was a designed action and they knew that the following year the tree would be dead. Often, a large fire was started at the base and stone axes were used to cut into the weakened and charred wood until repeated fires and chopping felled the tree.

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Even a dead birch tree will provide a strong and pliable source of bark. If you come across a dead-fall birch, harvest the bark to your heart’s content. If you’re desperate and only have access to live trees, limit your cuts and stripping to half of the tree if you can. That will at least give it a fighting chance for recovery.

You may be wondering: Why is bark so important to a tree? The inner bark or “xylem” is essentially the circulatory system for any tree. Water and nutrients are delivered to the tree from the roots to its leaves by this circulation. That’s why a “girdled” tree will soon die. When its only source of water and nutrients is cut off, the tree has no options for survival.

Pre-Treating Bark

There are a few steps to making any bark more workable. Some tree bark, like the slippery elm, requires a bit of scraping of the outer bark to make the piece more pliable. Birch is naturally flexible, but it will be curved when first harvested. Native Americans flattened the birch bark on the ground with the curved side down and weighted it with stones. The moisture in the ground and the weight of the stones eventually flattened the bark.

Another key step is to soak the bark in hot water before working with it. This also adds some flexibility, and it helps to keep the bark from splitting when it’s folded or shaped.

Many bark creations were sewn at the seams with cordage or strips of leather to re-enforce items like baskets and bowls. If the object needed to hold water, the seams were sealed with pine pitch.

Let’s take a look at items the Native Americans made from bark:

1. Cup

One of the easiest and most common uses for bark was for a ladle or drinking cup.  A circle of birch bark was cut and a triangular fold was made from the center to the edge. This fold was then overlapped to form a cone. The creased bark was held in place with a stick with a split in it, and the fact that the bark was not cut made it water tight to either scoop water from a spring, or to simply drink it as a cup.

2. Bowl

This same approach was used with a wider circle of birch bark or slippery elm to make bowls supported by rocks around the side, or a hat that would shade you from the sun or protect you from the rain.

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3. Pot

The bowl concept also can allow you to cook with a bark cooking pot. Hot stones were picked from a fire with two sticks much like chop sticks, and the stones were swirled in the water until the water actually started to boil.

But be careful with hot rocks. A rock from a river may appear nice and smooth, but many of them contain moisture in their cracks and crevices and can explode and shatter in the fire. Igneous rocks like granite or basalt are the best because they are less likely to be porous and allow water to seep in.

4. Sunglasses

“Sunglasses” are another option, with a piece of bark cut about six inches wide and two inches in height. You may doubt the need for sunglasses, but in winter, snow-blindness is a serious problem, as sunlight reflects off forests and fields of snow. These sunglasses, though, did not contain any glass or plastic. A couple of sticks were used to support the bark strip over the ears like a regular pair of sunglasses, and two crosses in the shape of a plus sign (+) were cut into the bark at eye level.

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A semi-circular cut was made to fit over the bridge of the nose. The size of the crosses was usually a half-inch long both up and across, and the slit was about an eighth of an inch wide. You look at the world through the slit, which allows less light and protects your eyes. This was actually an Eskimo invention.

5. Backpack

A backpack is also easy to make with a long piece of bark about three feet in length and a foot and a half wide. The bark was folded over, and the seams on either side were sown together with cordage or long strips of leather. Holes were poked first and the cordage or leather simply woven through. Straps from cordage or leather were attached and reinforced with more lacing. and everything from personal items to harvested plants, fruits and vegetables could be carried with ease.

6. Candle lantern

A curved piece of birch bark, wrapped and held in place at the base around a circle of sawn wood creates a wind block and reflector for a candle lantern in a fixed camp. Be careful using this indoors. Birch bark is highly flammable, which makes it great tinder, but not something you want to burst into flames in a cabin.

7. Torch

A simple torch is easy to improvise, with strips of birch bark held in place by a slit in a long branch. Additional strips of bark can be added as the birch burns; it actually gives off a good amount of light for a long time.

Final thoughts

All Native American tribes crafted canoes from birch, but that’s something that’s a bit beyond my expertise, although I’ve had success making small-scale toy canoes from birch bark, and my kids and grandkids still play with them. Maybe someday I’ll see if I can scale it up and actually make a birch bark canoe, but I’ll definitely be testing it in very shallow water.

What advice would you add on making tools and utensils from bark? Share your tips in the section below:

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How To Make Off-Grid ‘Survival Rope’ Using Nothing But Grass

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How To Make Off-Grid ‘Survival Cord’ Using Only Grass

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Spartacus was famous for crafting ropes from trees and weeds to save his men and lead then from slavery. Thankfully, we don’t have to make rope for such extreme times, but it’s a good skill to master just in case.

Just about any long-stemmed plant material can be pounded into a fiber to make rope, but some plants are better than others.

There are three steps to making rope:

1. Collecting the cordage material.

You want to find plants and materials that are fibrous and tough. There are five potential materials for cordage from plants:

  • Long grass.
  • Tree bark from ash, box elder, basswood, elm, walnut, cherry, cedar, aspen, willow, cottonwood, hickory or oak.
  • Woody stalks from plants like dogbane, stinging nettle, velvet leaf, milkweed, fireweed and evening primrose.
  • Leaves from yucca, cattail or fern.
  • Roots from spruce, juniper, tamarack, cedar and pine.

Dogbane is often the plant of choice. It’s a member of the hemp family and is easy to work. The easiest way to do this is to break a plant or tree stalk and see if it is resistant to an easy break. If the fiber is tough and resilient, you have the potential for good cordage.

2. Tempering or preparing the material.

Unless you’re using grass, he materials needs to be “worked.” This can involve twisting, pounding on a rock or stripping into pieces. Sometimes, the material needs to be soaked in water. The idea is to shred the fibers of the plant into strands that are easy to work and twist. Pounding with a small rock on a larger rock is the most common method, but twisting can also work with fibrous plants like dogbane and milkweed. Any pounding should be done with a rounded rock so that sharp edges don’t cut the material.

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You can also roll the plant material between your hands, on your pant leg or twist it and stretch it.

3. Braiding and splicing.

This is where it all happens. What you’re going to be doing is a basic braiding process of overlapping three or more strands of plant fiber. You’ll need to add in additional pieces as you go to splice in new fibers. Sometimes you can actually tie small knots to make a better connection from splice to splice. (Watch the videos below.)

The Basic Wrap

Hold the ends of the fibers and roll the whole bundle against your pants leg in one direction. By making repeated strokes along the entire length, you should be able to twist the fibers into a strand of makeshift cordage that’s many times the strength of the original strands of material.

Reverse Wrapping

Start by twisting the fiber bundle in the middle until it kinks; then hold the kink between the thumb and index finger of one hand. With the fingers of the second hand, twist the bottom strand toward you and wrap it once around the other. Now, hold this wrap with the first hand, twist the new bottom strand toward you and wrap it around the other. Continue the process along the entire length.

Below are videos that show how this step looks, one with grass and the other with bark.

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Splicing

Twist and kink the bundle so that one end is twice as long as the other. (This will eliminate the chance of producing parallel splices that would seriously weaken the cordage.) Then, using the reverse technique, wrap to within an inch or two of the short end. Next, separate the fibers of the short end with your fingers (so they spread out like a broom). Now, attach a second bundle of equal thickness by spreading and fitting its fiber ends into those of the first bundle. Continue twisting and wrapping as before, taking care not to pull the strands apart. When you come to the end of the original long strand, add a third piece — and so on.

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After you’ve finished a length of cordage you can then take additional corded lengths and repeat the process to give your rope additional strength. If you are using your cordage to tie together logs or other types of connections like joints, you’ll want to wet the cordage first to make it more flexible.

You can combine different materials from various plants and trees. This could help with splicing and the overall strength of your finished rope.

In spite of your best efforts, you probably really shouldn’t depend on homemade cordage to sustain any human weight. It may seem indestructible, but the splices can suddenly slip and you don’t want be hanging over a cliff when that happens.

This type of cordage is intended mostly for lashing and binding other materials such as supports for a lean-to, logs for a makeshift raft, or other temporary structures. Cordage can last about a year, but like any other plant-based material it will eventually deteriorate with time.

Have you ever made cord? Share advice would you add? Share it in the section below:

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