Betula lenta L.
Cherry birch, Sweet birch, Black birch
Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.
- Folk Medicine
- Yields and Economics
- Biotic Factors
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
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, 19691979), 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.
According to Hartwell (19671971), 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, 19691979; 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 0.230.6% essential oil, 99.8% of
which is methysaliclate. Buds contain 46% essential oil containing betulol.
According to Morton (1977), the distilled oil contains 9799% methyl salicylate
(List and Horhammer, 19691979).
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
Aromatic tree with brown, exfoliating bark on young stems, twigs glabrous.
Leaves ovate or elliptic, 2.710 cm long, 1.56 cm wide, pubescent on the veins
beneath, apically acute or acuminate; sharply serrate, base cordate, rounded or
cuneate; petioles usually pubescent, 0.81.9 cm long. Pistillate catkins
cylindric or oblong, 1.23.4 cm long, 0.61.2 cm broad; bracts glabrous;
samaras obovoid, 2.53.5 mm broad, apically winged, glabrous (Radford et al,
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 (25 mm) keeping the seedbed moist if
possible. Epigeal germination is usually complete 46 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 250475 m2
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.
According to the phytomass files (Duke, 1981b), annual productivity ranges from
3 to 12 MT/ha in various species of birch, standing biomass 2220 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.
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
Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
- Agriculture Handbook 165. 1960. Index of plant diseases in the United States.
- Agriculture Handbook 450. 1974. Seeds of woody plants in the United States.
Forest Service, USDA. USGPO. Washington.
- Browne, F.G. 1968. Pests and diseases of forest plantations trees. Clarendon
- Cannell, M.G.R. 1982. World forest biomass and primary production data.
Academic Press, New York.
- Duke, J.A. 1981b. The gene revolution. Paper 1. p. 89150. In: Office of
Technology Assessment, Background papers for innovative biological technologies
for lesser developed countries. USGPO. Washington.
- Duke, J.A. 1983c. Amerindian medicinal plants. Typescript.
- Duke, J.A. and Wain, K.K. 1981. Medicinal plants of the world. Computer index
with more than 85,000 entries. 3 vols.
- Erichsen-Brown, C. 1979. Use of plants for the past 500 years. Breezy Creeks
Press. Aurora, Canada.
- Fernald, M.L., Kinsey, A.C., and Rollins, R.C. 1958. Edible wild plants of
eastern North America. Rev. Ed. Harper & Bros., New York.
- Grieve, M. 1931. A modern herbal. Reprint 1974. Hafner Press, New York.
- Hartwell, J.L. 19671971. Plants used against cancer. A survey. Lloydia 3034.
- Leung, A.Y. 1980. Encyclopedia of common natural ingredients used in food,
drugs, and cosmetics. John Wiley & Sons. New York.
- List, P.H. and Horhammer, L. 19691979. Hager's handbuch der pharmazeutischen
praxis. vols 26. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
- Miller, D.F. 1958. Composition of cereal grains and forages. National Academy
of Sciences, National Research Council, Washington, DC. Publ. 585.
- Morton, J.F. 1977. Major medicinal plants. C.C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.
- Radford, A.E., Ahles, H.E., and Bell, C.R. 1968. Manual of the vascular flora
of the Carolinas. UNC Press, Chapel Hill.
Last update December 30, 1997