Red birch

Since time immemorial, people have gathered plant and animal resources for their needs. Some of these resources include edible nuts, fruits, herbs, spices, and fibres used for construction of shelter and plant or animal products for medicinal, cosmetic or cultural uses. Among these uses, medicinal plants play a central role. Not typically thought of as herbs, trees are also a part of our living pharmacy. Some older Caymanians still boil the bark to make a medicinal drink, with Wild Fig ‘milk’ added, to treat backache. The following is taken from Wild Trees in the Cayman Islands by Fred Burton, with illustrations by Penny Clifford; photographs by Sean Slattery and Marnie Laing.

Red Birch (Bursera simaruba)

Red birch

Red birch

The Red Birch, often simply called ‘Birch,’ is unrelated to the Birch trees of temperate climates (in the genus Betula). It is a large, fast growing tree, easily recognized thanks to its brown-red bark which peels profusely in paper-thin sheets. A greenish tint shows through where the bark is thin, and a sticky, aromatic resin exudes if it is damaged. Under the papery bark peelings, the surface of the trunk and large branches is smooth and spotted with pale breathing pores: skin-like wrinkles are often present where branches bend. Lichens and other epiphytes are rare, unable to stay attached to the constantly shedding surface.

Red Birch is deciduous, dropping all its leaves during the height of the dry season. It flowers twice a year, once on bare branches at the end of the spring dry season, and again in late summer. The clusters of small yellow flowers produced dark red fruits, which persist for months and from a staple diet for parrots, White-crowned Pigeons, and several smaller fruit eating birds.

This tree is found throughout the West Indies, and from Florida down to northern South America. It is one of the most common trees in Cayman’s woodlands on all three islands. The wood is pale and soft, and has been used for making crates and match-sticks. In Cayman popular traditional uses included making model boats and cricket balls. Some older Caymanians still boil the bark to make a medicinal drink, with Wild Fig ‘milk’ added, to treat backache.

Red Birch makes living fence posts: the trunks of cut saplings take root easily. Many an old property line is now marked by neat rows of mature Red Birch trees, grown up from a Red Birch fence. It also sprouts readily from seed or from normal cuttings, and grows quite fast.