Summer is the season of birch bark

by Julie Miedtke

As the sun reaches its apex over the northern hemisphere, our northern forest is exploding with life. For many people, it is a special season and they head out to the woods to harvest bark. Birch bark, or wiigwaas, is a ‘keystone’ species by the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa or Chippewa), and by most cultures across the native range of birch. The bark from the birch trees served many purposes including: transportation being used for canoes, containers storing food, lodging and more. Today, there is a growing interest in ‘craft’ and birch bark in the hands of skilled artisans using it to create beautiful or functional works of art. Learn more about the use of birch bark from the Minnesota Harvester Handbook’s fact sheet.

Birch bark (by Julie Miedtke)
Birch bark with bear claws (by Julie Miedtke)

Last winter while hiking through our land, I discovered a mature birch tree that had been marked up by a bear. Over the winter, I altered my route in order to check on the tree and look around for other bear signs. My thoughts turned to the logistics of harvesting the bark and how totally cool it would be to have a basket with claw marks! The time is fast approaching for harvesting birch bark, and with all of the recent moisture the conditions should be perfect to harvest the bark. All I need is a little help with the ladder.

Other related news:

1. International Birch Syrup Conference: The first ever International Conference on Birch Sap and Syrup will take place from June 12-14, 2015 at Paul Smiths College in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The main purpose of the conference is to bring together many people who are currently producing birch sap and syrup products to network with each other, share ideas, and learn about the latest research and developments in this growing industry. It is also intended for sugarmakers who have birch trees and are considering adding birch syrup production to their existing operations. We are very excited about this conference and hope to share materials following the conference.

2. Learning opportunities: Russian Birch Bark Weaver Vladimir Yarish, a master award-winning basket maker, has worked with birch bark for more than 24 years. Born in Qaraghandy, Kazakhstan, he moved to Novgorod Province. He has been teaching birch bark basketry at his studio in the Cultural Palace of the city of Veliky Novgorod since 1993. Beginning in 1997, Vladimir has been invited to teach classes all over the U.S. and will be making several stops in Minnesota. Vladimir has published many articles on birch bark and traditional basket making for both academic journals and popular magazines.  Yarish has authored Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark” considered to be a definitive work on birch bark.  Yarish’s visit is an outstanding opportunity to learn more about the birch resource.

Yarish’s itinerary for Minnesota:

  • July 20-26 North House Folk School, Grand Marais, MN
  • July 28-29  MacRostie Art Center, Grand Rapids, MN
  • August 1-2 American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, MN

3. Chaga, Inonotus obliquus, continues to drive conversations in northern Minnesota with reports of illicit removal of the chaga mushroom from birch trees from public and private lands. In some areas of the state public managers are having discussions about harvesting practices after finding damaged trees and hearing stories about people dragging ladders through the woods and tree spikes to harvest the mushroom.

Chaga, Inonotus obliquus (by Julie Miedtke)
Chaga, Inonotus obliquus (by Julie Miedtke)

Chaga is a sterile conk that exhibits irregularly formed shape with the appearance of burnt charcoal. It is actually a mass of mycelium and is harvested for its’ medicinal properties. Chaga is commonly used in Russia and Eastern Europe as a home remedy for cancer, inflammation and other health related issues.

Interest in harvesting chaga may be market driven with reports of chaga being sold for $20/pound in some locations in Minnesota.

4. The Minnesota Harvester Handbook is the first significant nontimber forest products publication that provides information on nontimber forest products including birch bark and chaga. The Minnesota Harvester Handbook addresses sustainable natural resource harvest and markets. This resource – developed by the University of Minnesota Extension and many contributors – demonstrates the breadth and diversity of natural resources found in and around the state’s woodlands. For more non-timber forest products to harvest this spring, purchase a copy of the Minnesota Harvester Handbook.


Julie Miedtke is an Extension forester in Itasca County. She's based in Grand Rapids.

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  1. The sessions with Vladimer- can we come an go anytime or do we sign up
    ahead of time , What times do they run? Can I just come to l day?

  2. Greetings,

    Thank you for your interest in learning more about the birch resource and traditional weaving with the bark. I would encourage you to connect with your preferred location to find out more about the schedule, costs and registration. It’s a very special opportunity with this master instructor and you’ll want to be sure you can get into the class of your choice.

    And I apologies for the typo, naturally North House Folk School is located in Grand Marias…!

    1.) July 20-26 North House Folk School, Grand Marias, MN

    2.) July 28-29 MacRostie Art Center, Grand Rapids, MN
    Phone (218) 326-2697

    3. August 1-2 American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, MN
    Phone: (612) 871-4907

    Thanks again!

  3. Excellent!

    Julie it would great to correspond with you. I too am CES and recently harvested birch bark. Lots of interest here in Chaga too. Great write ups!