Whenever something bad happens, my mother’s voice pops into my head – “bad things happen in threes.” We are fresh off of our third Nor’easter, and I know I’m not the only one who is hoping that winter is done. Every time I take my dog outside, she looks up at me like, “Oh my gosh! When is it going to melt?” I put out a fresh bird feeder this morning and one of our grey squirrels – who usually hangs off of it and spins around patiently trying to get the seeds – just sat under it this afternoon staring at me blankly as I walked by. It was like he was saying, “ugh, what’s the point?” He might have also been saying, “Um, bears will be waking up soon, lady!” It’s the last feeder of the season, don’t worry.
The three recent Nor’easter storms brought a flood, trashed our yard and killed some of our young plants. They also left us with sleep deprivation and very grumpy moods. My husband and I have been taking turns satirically wondering which of the things that happened were bad enough to constitute one of the “three bad things” and if we had even reached our limit of three yet. Could there possibly be more to come?
Luckily, today was the start of our gardening season. My parents were nice enough to come down today with some extra chainsaws and help us to start clearing the sick and overgrown woodland on the side of our house. This area has been designated as our garden site since we moved into our home last May. We were able to put up one section of our garden fencing and plant some veggies last spring, but nearly 3/4 of the rest of the garden site was left as forest while we did our research.
We have big plans for our farm, but we made a conscious decision years ago to manage whatever land we purchased in the most sustainable way possible. Among other things, this means noting the local flora, fauna and any supporting habitats. There is a lot to take into consideration before making room for gardens, but luckily we have backup. My father has been a successful steward of nearly 80 acres of forest for over thirty years. It is from him than I learned about the importance of keeping forests healthy and knowing when to cull to make room for the new growth. He taught me that the health of the forest depends as much on access to light as it does healthy soil.
While I will be knee-deep in brush piles next weekend, the boys were nice enough this weekend to let me stay warm inside and focus on my seedlings. As my father and husband cut trees and moved the brush to piles, my mother and I talked about the garden plans. She is another backup we are lucky to have. My mother is a master gardener and is wonderfully knowledgeable about all things compost and soil related.
After about an hour, I decided to step outside and see how the boys were doing. As soon as I started to walk towards them I was met with a wonderful and familiar scent – black birch. One of my favorite native trees, black birch twigs smell like wintergreen when the bark is scratched. I looked to the brush piles and saw that there was a section of shiny chocolate-brown branches with bright green scrapes – the source of the smell! The trunk of the black birch tree was partially rotted, but the tiny twigs on the ends of the branches were still very much alive.
One of the most delicious winter teas is black birch tea – I’ve listed my recipe below. Although the trees we cut from the garden site will be completely used up – firewood, mulch and ashes from burned brush for fertilizer – I could not leave the fresh black birch twigs there with the other trees. I collected as many as I could fit into a quart size mason jar and filled the jar with hot water. I covered the jar and I’ll let it steep tonight. Tomorrow morning, I will have a delicious tea that I can pour out, gently heat up and enjoy.
I don’t know if the weather is going to get better or worse, but I do know that it doesn’t do anyone any good to have angst about it. Today didn’t get above freezing, but the sun was out and the fresh air was wonderful. In all of the commotion lately, I had forgotten about black birch tea. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it this season if we had decided to stay inside and wallow instead of move on and get back to work. I’m not sure if we had our bad things of three happen yet or not, but spring starts on Tuesday. Take my advice and spend some time with your friends and family and nature. If you find some black birch, harvest it respectfully and enjoy the tea. It might be cold still, but the Equinox is the start of something new, and there is comfort to be found in that.
*Note that black birch is edible (the above is black birch), but it sometimes is confused with wild cherry tree, which is poisonous. As with any other wild edibles, please make sure that you know what you are harvesting before you eat it.*
The Way I Do Black Birch Tea
Harvest fresh twigs from thin black birch tree branches. Please make sure not to over-pick one tree as this may injure or kill the tree, especially young ones.
Place as many twigs as you can into a glass or other heatproof jar. I like to use at least a quart size mason jar. I pack them in pretty well because I really like a strong flavor. You run the risk of having a weak tea if you don’t use enough. If you’ve ever chewed on a twig, you’ll notice that it starts to lose flavor pretty quickly.
Heat water to 160 degrees and pour over the twigs in the jar. You don’t want to boil the water and cook them up because that will ruin the flavor. Cover the container with a lid or other airtight method and let the container sit overnight at room temperature. I sometimes let it sit a little longer for a stronger tea.
Heat the tea up to about 150 degrees and enjoy. I recommend pairing this tea with shortbread.