Saturday, December 4, 2021
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Birch bark promises better health
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Northern Minnesota's birch trees could soon be improving cosmetic and medicinal products on a large scale. (Photo courtesy NaturNorth Technologies)
Birch bark has been used to make baskets and canoes for a long time, but a startup company in Duluth is marketing a new product made from it. A chemical in the papery bark is an ingredient in skin creams, and scientists are studying it for use in treating rashes, and even cancer. Native American healers have been using birch bark for years, and some of them are worried about the future supply.

Duluth, Minn. — Have you ever noticed, when you are walking in the woods, those cylinders of bright white bark lying on the forest floor? They're the remains of a birch tree. The inside of the tree rots away quickly, but the bark lasts much longer.

"The birch tree has some incredible defense mechanisms that protect the tree from weather, from rain, from sun, keep the moisture in, keep moisture out," says David Peterson.

He knows birch trees pretty well. Peterson was a top manager at the Potlatch paper mill in Cloquet. The plant processes thousands of trees every day, and burns the bark to make steam.

"I always was interested in trying to come up with a way of using some of these low value waste streams, generated from pulp and paper mills and other places," Peterson says. "It seemed like such a horrible waste, to take these really interesting compounds and put them in a boiler for boiler fuel."

So Peterson created a new company, NaturNorth Technologies, to make something worth a lot more than boiler fuel. The company has patented a process to extract large quantities of a chemical, betulin, that gives birch bark its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities.

Mill workers remove bark from a tree that's harvested for lumber or papermaking. The bark is shredded into pellets, and put through a chemical process that extracts the betulin. It ends up looking something like salt.

Peterson offers a sample of betulin. "You can see how bright and white it is. It's got a chalky feel when you touch it."

Apparently, what birch bark does for the birch tree, it can also do for human skin -- protect it from the assaults of the physical world. Betulin is already used in some creams and cosmetics, but NaturNorth plans to be the first company in the world to market it on a large scale.

The idea of selling lots of betulin from birch bark makes Skip Sandman nervous.

Sandman is a traditional healer for the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe. He uses birch bark for medicine, as a painkiller and blood-thinner. Sandman says it can also be used for intestinal disorders.

"Fortunately, when people use it for medicines, one small tree does go a long ways," Sandman says. "But you might have to travel 15 or 20 miles to find the right type of tree."

Sandman says the bigger trees, 10-12 inches in diameter, have a bigger supply of the properties he uses in medicine. And lately he's had to go farther to find those big trees.

"You see the logging trucks go by, and they're just whacking down everything," Sandman says. "They think it's only a tree. But when the trees are gone, then what do we do?"

Sandman says in the Ojibwe creation story, each plant and animal promised to help people in some way, and birch trees offered their healing qualities. He says it's important to use them respectfully, and not for profit, but only to help people.

"I will ... talk to that tree, because it is alive," he says.

The folks at NaturNorth are hoping to make money from birch trees, but they're also excited about helping people. David Peterson says he gets letters from people who want some betulin to treat a skin condition.

"When you get those letters, you can't help but to feel that somebody out there will benefit eventually from these compounds," Peterson says. "I think it's quite sobering and humbling."

NaturNorth has started marketing betulin to cosmetics companies, and scientists are studying betulinic acid for its disease-fighting potential. Peterson says it'll be several years before NaturNorth generates a profit.