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Betula lenta L.

Cherry birch, Sweet birch, Black birch

Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry
  4. Toxicity
  5. Description
  6. Germplasm
  7. Distribution
  8. Ecology
  9. Cultivation
  10. Harvesting
  11. Yields and Economics
  12. Energy
  13. Biotic Factors
  14. References


A beer is made from birch bark. Fernald et al., (1958) quote an old English recipe for the beer:

"To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirr'd together; then boil it almost an hour with a few Cloves, and a little Limon-peel, keeping it well scumm'd. When it is sufficiently boil'd, and become cold, add to it three or four Spoonfuls of good Ale to make it work...and when the Test begins to settle, bottle it up . . . it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the Appetite, being drunk ante pastum."

According to Grieve (1931), Kamschatka natives drink the sap without previous fermentation. In Spring, the inner bark can be cut up into noodle-sized strips and cooked as birch "noodles." Like maple sap, the sap can be used for honey, syrup, or sugar after boiling down. Wood used by cabinet makers. The oil distilled from the wood is insectifugal and can be used to preserve furs. Sweet Birch oil is used as a counter irritant for arthralgia and neuralgia, usually in balms, liniments, and ointments. It is used to impart a wintergreen flavor in such things as baked goods, candies, chewing gums, dairy desserts, gelatins, puddings, and root beer, rarely constituting as much as 0.1% of candy (Leung, 1980). Used in cosmetic shampoos (List and Horhammer, 1969–1979), and in the sugar industry for flavoring and in perfumery. Birch tar oil, distilled from the wood and bark of Betula pendula Roth is used for eczema, psoriasis, and other skin diseases.

Folk Medicine

According to Hartwell (1967–1971), the birch species are used in folk remedies for abdominal and mammary cancers and carcinomas and warts. Reported to be alterative, anodyne, antiseptic, counterirritant, deobstruent, depurative, diaphoretic, diuretic, parasiticide, pectoral, stomachic, and vulnerary, sweet birch is a folk remedy for burns, chafing, cold, cough, dandruff, dysentery, dysmenorrhea, gout, gravel, lumbago, rheumatism, scalds, sciatica, and sores (Duke and Wain,1981; List and Horhammer, 1969–1979; Erichsen-Brown, 1979). The bark has been used as an astringent, antiseptic, antipyretic, and antirheumatic. Cherokee chewed the leaves for dysentery and used the bark tea for colds, dysentery, milky urine, and stomach ailments. Delaware used the bark decoction as cathartic or emetic. Iroquois used it for colds, fever, soreness, and venereal diseases. Ojibwa used bark as diuretic. In the days of Milspaugh, much of the so-called oil in wintergreen was made instead from young birch, there being little variance between oil of wintergreen and oil of birch (Duke,1983c).


Per 100 g, the leaves are reported to contain, on a zero-moisture basis, 28.1 g protein, 8.6 g fat, 55.6 g total carbohydrate, 16.9 g fiber, and 7.7 g ash (Miller, 1958). Hager's Handbuch lists 3% monotropitoside (Salicylic-acid primvercoside, gaultherin, C19H26O12) and 0.23–0.6% essential oil, 99.8% of which is methysaliclate. Buds contain 4–6% essential oil containing betulol. According to Morton (1977), the distilled oil contains 97–99% methyl salicylate (List and Horhammer, 1969–1979).


Very toxic orally, methyl salicylate can be absorbed through the skin, resulting in human fatalities. As little as 4, 700 mg can be fatal in children (Leung, 1980).


Aromatic tree with brown, exfoliating bark on young stems, twigs glabrous. Leaves ovate or elliptic, 2.7–10 cm long, 1.5–6 cm wide, pubescent on the veins beneath, apically acute or acuminate; sharply serrate, base cordate, rounded or cuneate; petioles usually pubescent, 0.8–1.9 cm long. Pistillate catkins cylindric or oblong, 1.2–3.4 cm long, 0.6–1.2 cm broad; bracts glabrous; samaras obovoid, 2.5–3.5 mm broad, apically winged, glabrous (Radford et al, 1968).


Reported from the North American Center of Diversity, cherry birch, or cvs thereof, is reported to tolerate heath balds, frost, shade, and slope. (2n = 28).


Southern Maine to southern Ontario, southern to eastern Ohio and Delaware, along the mountains to Alabama and Georgia.


Estimated to range from Cool Temperate Moist to Wet through Boreal Moist to Wet Forest Life Zones, and to tolerate annual precipitation of ca 6 to 15 dm, annual temperature of 5 to 12°C, and pH of 4.5 to 7.5. Farther south in rich woods and heath balds.


For the oil, birch is usually harvested from the wild. Birch seeds do best if stratified, or can be sown after collection in late summer or fall. Seed is broadcast and covered very lightly (2–5 mm) keeping the seedbed moist if possible. Epigeal germination is usually complete 4–6 weeks after spring sowing. Seedlings require light shade during their first summer.


Midrange this flowers from April to May, fruits ripening from August to September, the seeds dispersing from September to November (Agriculture Handbook 450). Birch seed is collected by picking or stripping the cones while they are still green (to prevent shattering). Ripe cones, on the other hand, are placed in, bags to prevent loss of seed. Seedling densities of 250–475 m2 are suggested.

Yields and Economics

Most sources indicate that birch oil, which replaced wintergreen oil, has been largely replaced by synthetic methyl salicylate. Salicylic acid is now synthesized and selling at ca $2.50 to $3.00 per kilo. Salicylic acid in technical form is used as a coupling agent dye intermediates, in the foundry industry as a curing agent in the production of shell moulding compounds, as an agent for retarding the vulcanization process in rubber, as a preservative for glues and leather goods, and in alkyl/alkyd resins and latex paints (CMR, Dec. 13, 1982).


According to the phytomass files (Duke, 1981b), annual productivity ranges from 3 to 12 MT/ha in various species of birch, standing biomass 2–220 MT/ha. Rather lower productivity and standing biomass are reported by Cannell (1982). If there were a decent market for the oil of the bark and wood, then most of the aerial biomass could be an energetic byproduct.

Biotic Factors

Browne (1968) lists the fungi Melampsoridium betulinum and Nectria galligena and hymenoptera Heterarthrus nemoratus affecting cherry birch. Agriculture Handbook No. 165 lists the following as affecting this species: Comandra umbellata (seed plant parasitic on roots), Cryptospora betulae (on dead branches), Cryptospora humeralis, Dermea molliuscula (on dead twigs), Diatrypella betulina (on dead branches), Fomes applanatus (white-mottled heart rot), F. connatus (white spongy heart rot), F. pinicola (brown crumbly heart rot), F. robustus (white sapwood and heart rot),.Gloeosporium betularum (leaf spot), Hymenochaete agglutinans (trunk canker), Melanconis acrocystis, M. stilbostoma, Microsphaera alni (powdery mildew), Nectria coccinea (on branches), Phyllactinia corylea (powdery mildew), Poria laevigata (white spongy rot, trunk canker), Poria obliqua (white spongy rot, trunk canker), Septoria betulicola (leaf spot), S. microsperms, Steganosporium piriforme (on twigs), Taphrina sp. (leaf blister), and Torula ligniperda (red stain of heartwood).


Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
Last update December 30, 1997