It was a cool fall day and we were near the top of Aunt Bett's mountain, the one that was beside her house. It was across the road from the mountain I called my own, and I could look down from high above and see the shiny silver roof of my home in the valley below. It was another one of those little trips up the mountainside that we took from time to time, searching for plants that Aunt Bett might need for one of her home remedies.
We'd taken our lunch with us, a Mason fruit jar filled with cold water straight from the well, two little tin cups, one for each of us, and leftover breakfast biscuits stuffed with homemade apple butter, all packed tightly in an old cloth sack. I remember that sack well. The word 'Meal' was printed in red letters and it had a cord that pulled the opening closed from both directions. Aunt Bett carried our lunches in it until I was big enough to carry my own.
I might have been seven or maybe eight that year, still learning, and wasn't allowed to taste or touch any plant without her supervision. My eyes widened as she opened that pocket knife and they got even bigger when she sliced a little twig off the branch. She hardly ever used her pocket knife. I thought she carried it only in case of wild animals and mountain monsters. When she started chewing the end of the twig, a new scent reached my nose.
Aunt Bett was a quiet woman and our trips up the mountain might be peppered with my questions occasionally, but her words were few and far between. Our mountain treks were so quiet that I always heard the sounds of birds and the chatter of squirrels and the rustle of critters and invisible monsters in the underbrush. But when Aunt Bett talked, I knew what she said would be important. I always listened to Aunt Bett.
I reached up to pull a twig for myself, but before I could touch it Aunt Bett's low voice reached my ear: "That Blackbursh won't break, them kinda trees only bend in th' wind, but they don't break." I backed away from the tree.
She used her pocket knife to cut a little twig for me. The twig didn't quite make it to my mouth, my hand stopped before it got there. I wasn't familiar with the tree and wasn't sure about the taste, so I looked up at Aunt Bett. She must have seen the question on my face.
"This here's th' Blackbursh, you can taste it jus' so you'll know th' flavor. It's right good tastin' an' best used for toothaches. I reckon I've got a tooth that's givin' me some problems right now. Jus' chew a little bit, jus' to get th' taste of the oil; too much an' it might make you sick. You need to know 'bout this tree for when you have a toothache of your own."
I'd never had a toothache and I was definitely worried about the oil she mentioned - having had some experience with castor oil - but I touched the twig with my tongue. I tasted nothing, yet again a very interesting scent touched my nose.
"Ya got to chew to get them oils loose. It's th' oils that cure a toothache, an' them oils come from the part jus' beneath th' bark. You need to chew to find th' flavor."
"I ain't got no toofache, Aunt Bett." I was in no hurry to get oil in my mouth.
"I want you to know th' taste of the tree in case you ever need it. You're jus' chewin' anyway. You ain't swallowin' nothin'."
Her words were louder and I thought she sounded a little impatient, so I took a deep breath and chewed. I was very careful to not swallow. And oh my! I couldn't describe the flavor then, I didn't have a word for it, but I can tell you now, it was wintergreen. I loved that taste and wanted more, but Aunt Bett said it was only to be used sparingly and only for a toothache. I swear it tasted so good I could have cried.
The black birch, (Aunt Bett's Blackbursh) Betula lenta, also known as the sweet birch, is native to eastern North America and grows south from southern Canada down through the Appalachian mountains. It isn't a very big tree, maybe 40 or 50 feet tall and a couple of feet around at maturity, but it is a pretty tree. It grows on the edges of forests where it can get a lot of sunlight. You won't find it in the midst of a flat forest floor. The thin green pointed leaves are papery and delicate, a bit hairy underneath. In fall the leaves turn golden yellow. It has reddish brown clusters of male catkins along with smaller pale green female catkins, both on the same tree. The seed pods look something like little one inch cones that open up when the seeds are mature. The gray bark slits as it grows, the same as most other birches, though unlike others it doesn't peel. Through the mostly vertical slits you see a dull mahogany color beneath the gray; a very strong and pretty wood when it's cut.
My Appalachian ancestors nearly annihilated the black birch trees in our mountains many years ago when they learned that an oil made from the bark and twigs created a high income business. The oil was identical to the oil of wintergreen which till then came from the wintergreen plant. The tiny plant produced only a small yield, but the black birch tree produced huge amounts of the same oil, and the oil was used to give flavor to medicines and as a liniment for aches and sprains. It was also used as a flavoring for candies. Entire familes began chopping down the trees, boiling the bark to get the oil, and selling it to storekeepers, who in turn sold it to drug and candy manufacturers. Eventually, oil of wintergreen was made synthetically and sold directly to the manufacturers, bypassing the storekeepers as middlemen. It was a less expensive process then and the almost extinct black birch was finally allowed to grow again.
Black birch bark has astringent properties which help when treating wounds and it also contains methyl salicylate, a pain reliever. As with everything else, one should never ingest too much of a good thing.
"Aunt Bett, I reckon I might have a toofache today," I'd say every time we started up that mountain. And every time she would cut for me one little branch from her Blackbursh tree. I chewed very slowly, just so it would last a long time. Seems like our trips up that mountain didn't come often enough and finally I suggested that it might be a good idea if I could have more than one twig at a time - "Just in case I might have a toofache in the wintertime, Aunt Bett."
It didn't happen then, but one time for no particular occasion at all, Aunt Bett handed me a little brown paper sack. In it was a small bundle of little twigs tied together with a piece of twine.
"Thems jus' in case you have a toofache in th' wintertime," she said with a grin, "an' to help you remember 'bout that tree. Strong trees bend in th' wind but don't break; jus' like strong people."
I still love wintergreen and lucky for me I don't have to climb any mountains or kill any trees to find it. Mostly all I have to do is check my pockets.