6 Trees Every Survivalist Should Know & Why

Now is a good time to go out and flag the following six trees before the leaves drop (except the pine).  Revisit them in the winter and learn how to ID them by the bark alone.  Then again in the Spring with the buds and new leaves.

 

White birch (paper birch)

birch

White birch is easy to identify with its distinctive, white, papery bark. The sycamore tree also has white bark, but it does not sluff off in thin, paper-like furls like the white birch. The sycamore also has large hand-shaped leaves versus the white birch’s smaller, oval-shaped leaves with a pointed tip. The birch leaf is also irregularly toothed.  These grow almost exclusively in northern climates.

birch-leaf

White birch survival uses:

  • Sweet drinkable sap that does not need purification
  • Containers can be fashioned from the bark (and even canoes – hence the name “canoe birch”)
  • It’s papery bark makes some of the finest fire starting tender on the planet, which will light even when damp because of its resinous quality
  • A fine tea can be made from the small twigs at the end of a branch or by shaving the bark from new growth. Toss a palmful of these elements into boiling water for a fresh, wintergreen-flavored tea
  • The tinder fungus (chaga) grows almost exclusively on the white birch tree. The fungus is one of the only natural materials I know of that will take the spark from flint and steel. A piece of tinder fungus along with flint and pyrite to create sparks were even found on Otzi, the “iceman” who was uncovered in the Austrian Alps several years ago.
  • Pine tar can be extracted from the bark of the white birch by heating it over a fire.  Pine tar makes an excellent natural adhesive which natives used for all kinds of purposes including securing stone points on arrows.

American Basswood

basswood

The American basswood (also called American linden) is a very common tree – especially in the Eastern U.S. It prefers moist soil and is often found by creeks, streams and ponds. It likes to grow several shoots from the base so it’s not uncommon to see the basswood growing in what appears to be clumps. Basswood trees have large, heart-shaped, coarsely toothed leaves and dark red young leaf buds. One of the most distinctive features of the basswood is what I call the “tongue.” A tongue-shaped leaf grows at the base of the regular heart-shaped leaves on mature trees. Hard, little, nut-like fruits dangle from the center of this “tongue” leaf throughout the summer.

basswood-cord

Basswood survival uses:

  • Delicious edible leaves – especially in spring
  • “Bass” comes from the word “bast,” which is an old word for rope. The inner fibers from the Basswood make some of the best natural cordage on the planet.  In my last course, 2 adult men could not break a 1/2″ thick strip of basswood bark.
  • Basswood is my favorite wood to use in fire by friction sets. It is soft and makes a perfect friction fire wood for bow drill spindles and hearthboards and for hand drill hearthboards.
  • Basswood is preferred by most wood carvers and chainsaw carvers because of how easy it is to work and carve
  • Inner bark layer is edible and can be scraped off with the edge of your knife. It has a very sweet flavor.

basswood-cordage

White Pine

pine-tree

The leaves of the White Pine grow in batches of 5 needles. Every fall the white pine loses all of its needles except those that grew that year. Pine is an evergreen. Evergreen trees keep some green leaves year-round, unlike deciduous trees, and have needle-like leaves. They also produce cones (pine cones) instead of flowers.

pine-needle

White pine survival uses:

  • Resin can be used a fire extender when mixed with tinder material
  • Resin can be heated and mixed with crushed charcoal to make a natural epoxy
  • Resin-rich joints and stump pieces make incredible fire kindling
  • Make pine-needle tea from the green pine needles – very rich in Vitamin C
  • Inner bark layers are edible
  • Harvest pine nuts from the pine cones
  • Pine needles make excellent fire tinder
  • Pine needles make excellent natural insulation material for debris huts and survival shelters
  • Green pine boughs are perfect for lean-to shelter roofs
  • Green pine boughs are great for making a ‘pine bough bed’ to protect from the cold ground or snow
  • The lower, dry, dead branches of the pine tree (squaw wood) is often some of the driest fire kindling available. It is exposed to the wind and also protected from the elements by the year-round needle canopy above,  I’ve also used these branches for making bow drill fire friction sets.
  • Very effective candles and lamps can be made from pine resin
  • Pine resin can be used to waterproof seams in clothing or crude containers
  • The very pliable surface layer roots make excellent (and strong) natural cordage. Use as a whole or split into smaller pieces.

White Oak (and all oaks in general)

oak

White oaks have rounded leaf lobes instead of pointed ones like red oaks. Contrary to popular belief, acorns are edible. I like white oak acorns better because it seems they are less bitter and it takes less effort to leach out the tannic acid (which causes this bitterness) to become more palatable. An abundance of acorns in mid-summer makes the oak family almost impossible to misidentify. Oaks are some of the largest trees in the forest. I have many white oaks at Willow Haven that are over 100 feet tall and easily 3-4 feet in diameter.

White oak survival uses:

  • Acorns (after leaching out the tannic acid) can be ground and used as flour to make acorn bread
  • Tannic acid (which can be extracted by boiling or leaching acorns and/or inner oak bark and twigs) is anti-bacterial. I’ve used it as an antiseptic wash before and have heard of it being used to quell diarrhea.
  • Acorns can be used a trap bait for squirrel and other small game animals
  • Can tan leather using the tannic acid found in bark, acorns and wood
  • Oak is a very hard wood that is good for ax handles, digging sticks and shelter frameworks
  • When dried, the white oak flowers make suitable tinder bundles and can be found in great abundance certain times of the year

Sugar Maple (and pretty much all maples)

maple

The sugar maple is one of my favorite trees and probably one of the most popular in the Eastern woodlands. Its beauty is on full display when the leaves change each fall into bursts of red, orange and yellow. The leaves usually have five lobes, and the tips are pointed. Young maples have smooth silvery bark. The unmistakable, “winged helicopter” seeds are a tell-tale maple tree indicator. Sugar maple is the source for maple syrup. This tree is preferred because its sap has high sugar content. It takes 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup.

maple-tap-bucket

Sugar maple survival uses:

  • In later winter/early spring when the sap is running, the sugar maple is an excellent source of drinkable water (sap) that needs no purification. Maple Sap is nature’s version of an energy drink – rich in sugar and nutrients. I’ve filled a 1-liter canteen in as few as 15 minutes before.  Maples don’t have fully developed (or any) leaves during this time of year – hence the important of 4 season identification.
  • The seeds inside the little helicopters are edible, just like edamame. I just boil them and lightly salt. They can also be fried or added to stews. Remove the outer helicopter.
  • I almost always use maple branches for wilderness cooking. Whether it’s a spit roast, a hot dog stick or utensils, I can always find a maple branch suitable for the task. Maple branches naturally have a lot of forks, which is great for pot holders and other wilderness kitchen uses.  I also use the leaves to wrap fish or other small game animals when cooling in an earth oven.
  • Young maple leaves are also edible. Toss them into a salad or boil them down with other spring greens. They get bitter and rough as they mature.

Willow Tree

willow

There are tons of different willow varieties. Every willow I’ve seen has a similar leaf shape. The leaves are narrow, lance-shaped and grow in great numbers along the branches. Willows must be in moist areas to survive. If you’ve found a willow, then there is a water source nearby.

willow-up-close

Willow survival uses:

  • Willow bark contains a chemical called salicin, which is similar to aspirin. I can personally attest to its effectiveness in relieving headaches and inflammation. Just chew on a few small green twigs and swallow the juices.
  • In spring and summer, willow bark will peel away from the wood and makes excellent cordage that can be used for a huge variety of tasks.
  • Young willow branches and saplings are very flexible and can be used to weave a variety of different baskets and funnel traps.
  • I’ve used dried willow wood on many occasions for friction fire sets – both hand drill and bow drill
  • Willow saplings make excellent frog and fish gigs. Just split the base into 4 equal sections, press a rock to the bottom of the splits and sharpen the tines.

Feel free to list other uses for these trees that I may have overlooked in the comments below!

Remember, it’s not IF, but WHEN.

Comments

  1. Rich Platts says:

    Nice one, well done and informative, I knew about birch and its uses but not the rest. Keep it up mate..

  2. Tom says:

    Good post, thank you. Don’t know how common sycamore is in US but it burns great and is an excellent wood for making the bow drill.

  3. The flowers of the Basswood ( American linden, Tilia cordata) are also very sweet and tasty. The flowers are produced in early summer and can be eaten right off the tree (making sure there aren’t pollinators still on them. They’re really loved by bees).

  4. can you double check the information on the birch? some of the things listed are black or yellow birch things listed as white birch.

  5. Reagan Barr says:

    That's 6.

  6. Reagan Barr says:

    Very nice, though.

  7. Sybil Nunn says:

    What a fascinating and informative post.

  8. Tom says:

    I have never seen *flowers* on an oak tree. Please, what season, and what color?

    • Doug says:

      In early spring, they are pale yellow greenish “worms” that hang down. These consist of a central stem, and hundreds of tiny flowers that surround the stem. When the finally shed all their pollen, turning every surrounding surface yellow, the fall off and tend to plug up gutters and vents. I despise them.

  9. MelissaLynn Vegas says:

    Grew up in Connecticut. Never knew about the edibility of the helicopters! Thanks

  10. Have "heard" you can use the juice from soaking crushed limbs for a root tonix when transplanting. Store bought root tonix is not good for vegetables, only house plants.

  11. For the willow use as root tonic

  12. Creek Stewart says:

    Ha! You're right. I wonder if there is a tree that can help me count :)

  13. Creek Stewart says:

    Richard Ramey Nice – very interesting – need to look this up!

  14. Doug Ray says:

    Hmmmm..grew up in S.W.- VA. and I believe I know most tree's there. While there is no white (paper) birch around , just sweet birch(indian toothbrush). I'm not sure about American Basswood , don't believe I've ever seen it. Good post , anyway!

  15. Bren says:
  16. Very interesting…..

  17. Rebecca L Gray says:

    Really good for the East, but what about the Midwest and Rockies?

  18. Cynthia Hogen says:

    ALL of the trees listed grow in MN, so I would also assume other upper-Midwest states: WI, ND, IA at least. Not sure about Rockies, but if you look the trees up on Wiki, they usually show growing regions.

  19. Lance says:

    1 ‘Illinois Everbearing’ mulberry can feed 12 chickens for 4 months of the year.
    Chickens will eat privet fruit (okay, it’s a shrub not a tree) and their fruit can overwinter on the shrub.
    There’s soooo many things to list. Look up (I disdain of ‘google it’ now) the Agroforestry Research Trust from the UK…neat trees!

  20. redesign says:

    Birch tar also widely used in natural medicine as antiseptic and to heal skin diseases

  21. ThanX for the great post. Clear & Concise.

  22. Sarah Parris says:

    The paper birch is found in southern MD, we used to go to a beach off the Potomac (or Patuxent) River and they were all over there.

  23. Larry says:

    I live in Texas… any thing here tree wise that I can use?

  24. Rob Bearbolt says:

    Except for the pine and oak, I have the rest of them in my backyard in upstate NY.I spent 20 years in Florida and I know the oak and pine well. Didn't realize what basswood was until this article.One whole side of my yard is lined with them. Good to know!

  25. Yong Allen says:

    thanks for the article, i do SERE training at Ft. Bragg and Ft. Rucker, more things add my curriculum . HOOAH! Airborne All The Way!

  26. Hugh B. Long says:

    I have all of those trees in my yard! :)

  27. Ben Branham says:

    I'm from the Appalachian mountains is south eastern Kentucky. I have all of these trees and more located in the forest adjacent to my home. I basically live in the woods. I know a great deal about the wilderness but this article taught me a couple of things I didn't know about certain trees that I am more than familiar with.

  28. John Jamison says:

    Don't forget that the chaga fungus can also be made into a tea. It has been know to destroy cancer cells in a petry dish and has many anti-oxidants!

  29. Kevin Miller says:

    Great article but I would be tempted to replace White Pine and Sugar Maple with Balsam Fir and Cedar.

  30. Thanks for that, keep it coming please!

  31. Millie Johnson says:

    Willow is also very good for making rustic furniture. Use the thicker pieces for the frame and the slender "benders" for the seat. Very easy to make a chair !

  32. Mike Tuttle says:

    I really don't believe you can get PINE tar, from a BIRCH tree. I believe they call it resin…

  33. Tj Robertson says:

    very profitable aswell if you lucky to find some. I live in Maine,USA and hardly see any at all…best find ever was 5oz in one clump

  34. Margaret says:

    well unfortunately, you once again focus on MOSTLY EAST COAST trees. I have no access to anything on the list except for willows that have been planted … Too wet for Oaks locally though there are places within the state they exist. How about a LIST for the WEST COAST peeps? Hmmm?

    • Debbra W says:

      Margaret – You can make pine needle tea from any pine. The Ponderosa is toxic for tea, if you are a cow and eat bushel full. The sap of any pine is good to use for fire starting. Live Canyon oak are not edible in the West (as far as I know), but you can eat the acorns (after processing). Willows do grow everywhere in the West and you read what to do with those. We have Paper Birch in the West too. If your immediate area doesn’t have a tree, buy one and plant it…I do it and they do pretty well here in Southern California. For your area, no matter where you live, ask the forest rangers, the botanists in the universities, and any naturalist in the area. They are all over the place and in the phone books, often. ;-)

  35. For the desert folk, Desert Willow is not a true willow…It is from the Bignoniaceae Family not the Salicaceae Family

  36. Gary Kinney says:

    I didn't realize all of the edibles there are in these trees.Excellent information,thank you !

  37. Very informative thanks

  38. Susanne Gabriel Corbin says:

    Doug, Do you have Linden? Just a different common name.

  39. I believe that linden is also called tilo (not sure of spelling) in Mexico. The leaves make good tea. I have purchased them from spice companies.

  40. All fine and dandy but none are native in my area. Living in Eastern Oregon puts a damper on most. I say most because we do have a few domesticated willow trees here though.

  41. VTA says:

    pine trees DO have flowers (like all trees). google it.

    • VTA says:

      sorry, i was wrong. i knew they had male and female parts, which for some reason made me think they had some kind of flowers.

  42. Clarice says:

    This design is spectacular! You most certainly know how to
    keep a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was
    almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!)
    Fantastic job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you
    presented it. Too cool!

  43. Viola Vatter says:

    Technically, sap comes from a deciduous tree and resin from a conifer. But you know what they meant in the article.

  44. Steve Rooney says:

    Latin name of genus: Tilia. In Europe, the London Planetree

  45. Roy Frady says:

    Are there sources for the utility of Western Trees? Most articles seem to focus only on the Eastern Woodlands, and I am good with that, having been born and raised there, but can you point me toward some good similar articles for the PNW?