When it comes to preparedness, we often think about the items we need to purchase and stockpile. We may not consider what’s growing right on our own property or within a short distance. Trees not only provide oxygen, shade, and firewood, but they also offer many other benefits. Knowing about them could save your life in an emergency.
So, get out your tree identification guide if you need one, and learn about these seven trees every survivalist should know.
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1. White birch
One of the easiest trees to identify, the white birch has white, papery bark that peels off in thin furls. It has small, oval-shaped and toothed leaves that have a pointed tip. The white birch (also called the paper birch) is native to the northern part of North America and is plentiful from Alaska to Maine.
White birch survival tips:
- The paper-like bark works well as a firestarter.
- The sap is sweet and drinkable.
- You can make a wintergreen-flavored tea by brewing the bark or thin branches.
- The fungus that grows almost exclusively on the white birch is excellent tinder.
- When heated over a fire, the tar extracted from the bark make a strong natural adhesive.
- You can fashion containers for food or liquids from the bark.
2. American Basswood
The American basswood (also called the American linden) is common to the eastern United States and often grows near creeks, streams, and ponds. Basswoods have large, toothed leaves. A leaf that is shaped like a tongue emerges at the base of the regular heart-shaped leaves on mature basswoods. Small, nut-like fruits hang from these “tongue” leaves during the summer months.
Basswood survival tips:
- The inner fibers of basswood bark can be twisted into a sturdy rope.
- Basswood leaves are edible and are especially flavorful in the spring.
- The tree’s inner bark layer also is edible and has a sweet taste.
- Basswood is soft and is useful as friction firewood.
- It also is easy to carve.
3. White Pine (and other pines)
- Image via Leonard214 / CC BY-SA 3.0
As an evergreen tree, the white pine has needle-like leaves and produces cones rather than flowers. White pines are native to northern central and northeastern North America.
White pine survival tips:
- The inner layers of the white pine bark are edible.
- You can boil the needles to make a tea that is rich in Vitamin C. Steep a teaspoonful of chopped pine needles in a cup of hot water for 10 minutes.
- The tree’s resin is flammable and makes a useful fire starter when mixed with other tinder.
- Pine needles also make excellent fire fuel.
- You can mix the resin with charcoal to make a strong, waterproof glue.
- Edible pine nuts come from the cones.
- Pine needles and pine boughs can be used for bedding material.
- Pine boughs also do well as natural insulation in survival shelters.
- Surface roots of the white pine are pliable and durable and can be fashioned into ropes.
- Pine resin is an insect repellent. Collect some in a tin container and light it to keep bugs at bay.
- The bark of young pine branches is edible.
- Young male pine cones also are edible.
4. White Oak (and other oak trees)
The majestic white oak tree is native to eastern and central North America. It is easy to spot oak trees in mid- to late- summer because of their size and all the acorns they drop. Acorns are extremely useful in a survival situation. All acorns have bitter-tasting tannic acid, but it can be removed through a simple leaching process.
White oak acorns tend to have less tannic acid than other acorns, and their shell is harder and easier to remove than red acorns. While red oak trees have pointed leaf lobes, white oaks have leaf lobes that are rounded.
White oak survival tips:
- After leaching out the tannic acid, you can grind acorns to make flour. Here is a video that shows this process for both white acorns and red oak acorns.
- Save the tannic acid to use as an antiseptic wash.
- Leached and ground acorns also can be used as a coffee substitute.
- Oakwood is firm and hard and is useful for many survival purposes, including shelter frameworks, ax handles and shovel sticks.
- Dried, white oak flowers are useful as tinder.
5. Sugar Maple (and other maples)
- Image via Kyle Lawrence / CC BY-SA 3.0
Known for its large leaves that change into bright reds and oranges in the fall, the sugar maple offers many survival benefits. Not the least of these is its tasty syrup. Abundant in the eastern woodlands of North American, the sugar maple has leaves with five lobes and pointed tips. Young maple trees have smooth bark that has a silvery color.
Sugar maple survival tips:
- The sap of the sugar maple, which runs in late winter and early spring is a natural energy drink rich in sugar and nutrients.
- Those seeds inside those distinctive helicopters are edible. All you need to do is boil them, remove the outer helicopter part and then eat them as is or add them to stir-fries or stews.
- Young spring maple leaves are also edible. You can boil them as you would other spring greens or add them to a salad.
6. Willow Tree
You know there is a water source nearby if you see a willow tree. Although there are many varieties of this graceful tree, they all prefer moist areas. Willow leaves are narrow, plentiful and lance-shaped. Native to China, the willow grows throughout North America, Europe, and Asia in temperate regions that offer enough moisture and sunlight.
Willow survival tips:
- Willow bark contains a pain-relieving chemical called salicin. You can relieve headaches and inflammation by chewing on a few small green willow twigs and swallowing the juices.
- Willow bark peels away from the wood easily in the warmer months. You can use it to make a strong rope.
- Flexible young willow branches can be used to weave baskets.
- Dried willow makes an excellent fire starter.
7. Pawpaw Tree
Found in the wet woodlands of the eastern United States, the Pawpaw boasts a tasty mango-like fruit that ripens in mid to late September. However, the vitamin-rich fruit is only one of this tree’s benefits.
Pawpaw survival tips:
- Pawpaw bark strips easily and separates into long fibers of that can be twisted to make strong cordage.
- The tree’s wood is light and easy to carve. Some carvers compare pawpaw wood to balsa or yucca because it is light and porous. Additionally, pawpaw wood has a desirable bright yellow color and a straight grain.
The inner bark of many trees — including Slippery Elm, most Pines, Black and Yellow Birch, Red and Black Spruce, Balsam Fir and Tamarack — is a nutritious wild food source.
In fact, early European explorers reported finding acres of trees that had been stripped of their bark – evidence that Native Americans commonly used bark as food and medicine. The Adirondack tribe, native to the mountains of upstate New York, means “bark eaters” in the Iroquois language.
The layer of choice to consume is called the cambium, and it lies right next to the wood. Most inner bark contains digestible starches, sugar, vitamins, minerals, and a large amount of fiber. Here are some examples of how tree bark is used as a food source and additive.
- Sassafras bark is used to make a traditional Southern tea and a root beer.
- Hickory nut tree bark can be stripped and boiled into a syrup that has an earthy, nutty taste.
- Birchbark provides a sweet, wintergreen flavor.
- In some parts of Scandinavia, pine bark is ground into a powder and used in Christmas cookies. Ponderosa pine bark smells like vanilla.
Maples are not the only trees that are good for syrup. You can also use birch, hickory, and black walnut trees for their sap, which has a lower sugar concentration than natural maple syrup.
A Word Of Warning
Although most tree components are harmless, proper identification is critical since some have toxic chemicals within them. Also, be careful not to strip off an entire ring when harvesting inner bark. Tree bark should be considered an emergency food since it can stunt the growth of a tree or kill the tree. Here are a few helpful resources to guide you.
- Edible Trees: A Practical and Inspirational Guide
- Edible Trees: Foraging for Food from Forests
- Foraging: Ultimate Guide to Wild Food
- A Beginner’s Guide to Finding Wild Edible Plants
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