Black Birch: Betula lenta Image

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

Also called sweet birch, cherry birch, or mahogany birch, this species is perhaps the only tree around that is best recognized by the flavor of its twigs. The inner bark, as any twig-chewing child can tell you, is delicious and fragrant: its wintergreen taste is from the very same oil found in Gaultheria procumbens, a small, creeping forest plant also called wintergreen.

So many black birch saplings were once chipped and distilled to make oil of wintergreen that for a time, the tree became rather scarce. Though they were being phased out, a few wood-fired stills continued to operate into the 1950s, a while after it was discovered that oil of wintergreen could be made synthetically from wood alcohol and salicylic acid – without using either black birch or wintergreen.

Since that time, black birch has rebounded and coincidentally has benefited from several other trees’ misfortunes. It is one of the species that has replaced American chestnut where chestnut once was a major component of the forest, and oak stands killed by gypsy moths now have more black birch. In recent years, black birch has filled in where hemlock woolly adelgid, a deadly non-native insect, has taken out the hemlock.

Yet another reason that we may see more black birch in the future is that, perhaps because it leafs out early in spring – earlier than ferns – black birch is one of the best tree species at growing though the dense fern layers that sometimes keep trees from regenerating. And then there is climate change. Now black birch grows best in the southern Appalachians, but perhaps soon it will be happier throughout the Northeast. At present, it is uncommon in northern New England and northern New York state.
Black birch is a lovely tree and produces beautiful wood that darkens with age, so no reason to begrudge its recent or anticipated successes. The bark resembles that of black cherry: lustrous, smooth, and dark red on young trees, and black, with loose, curled, scaly black plates on old trees. Although it prefers a nice place to live – moist, deep, slightly acid, well-drained soils – it is also found on rocky, drier sites, where large specimens often have tortuous trunks and branches. These rock-bound trees do not make good sawlogs, but they add great interest to the landscape. In a fertile forest, the tree grows straight and tall, typically to 60 feet and up to two feet in diameter, with a long bole free of branches.

Before there were dry kilns that make it possible to tailor a drying schedule to suit different species, black birch had a bad reputation for its insistence on warping, but now this trait has been conquered, and sometimes it is just mixed in with yellow birch at the sawmill. Once dry, it is stable and holds its shape. It glues well, can be turned on a lathe, and is used for veneer, as well as for furniture, paneling, and flooring.

Although black birch bark looks a lot like black cherry, both when young and old, its three- to four-inch ovate leaves are wider, with more prominent veins. In flower and fruit, black birch is clearly a birch. Like yellow birch and paper birch, drooping male catkins are in place and obvious all winter. Seeds in the erect female cones mature in autumn and drop to the ground through the winter. The tiny seeds can be blown long distances across snow and are eaten by small birds. The buds, twigs, and catkins provide food for grouse, deer, hare, and squirrels.

Native Americans used the leaves and bark to treat a variety of ailments, but the best known non-timber product from black birch is birch beer. Donald Culross Peattie, in his 1940s book, A Natural History of Trees in Eastern and Central North America, describes the process: “Tap the tree as the Sugar Maple is tapped, in spring when the sap is rising and the buds are just swelling; jug the sap and throw in a handful of shelled corn, and natural fermentation – so the mountaineers tell us – will finish the job for you.”

 
Discussion
  1. mary → in Poland, Maine
    Mar 27, 2010

    How much is it to buy black birch wood for use?

  2. Robert Seidel → in Portland,Oregon
    Apr 21, 2010

    Would you know of any sources for black birch (Betula lenta) bark?
    I’m an essential oil distiller, looking for raw material.
    Thanks

  3. Rod → in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania
    Jun 02, 2010

    I found out that the 10 acres I just bought is full of Black Birch.  Incredibly heavy, dense wood.  Didn’t know what it was until I looked it up later, but while I was chainsawing through a driveway, the smell was wonderful.  Got to love that fresh wintergreen scent.  I will be making use of it for several things for sure.

  4. Bartenblends Essential Oils → in Indiana
    Oct 28, 2010

    Thats an interesting tid bit about using the sap to make birch beer ! I wonder what it was mainly a remedy for.

  5. suzin → in ct
    Jul 25, 2011

    Is the black birch susceptible to nematodes or other diseases?  Is it considered a ‘dirty’ tree?  I am looking to plant a fast growing clump in my backyard and want a healthy, fairly clean tree.  I remember this tree while growing up in the woods of Pennsylvania.  How will it do in southeastern CT on the shore?

  6. Chuck Stead → in ramapo, new york
    Aug 20, 2011

    Had to remove a stand of black birch at a site for the future home of the Ramapo Saltbox Environmental Research Center in Ramapo New York. This is a re-assembly of a two hundred year old American Saltbox House that was used by the iron works community in the area. The research center is a field classroom to study the ever changing nature of the Torne Valley in this part of lower New York State. This is a collaboration of Town of Ramapo with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County along with students from an Environmental Studies program with Ramapo College of New Jersey. Anyway, the ‘cutting crew’ worked in a very cold time late this past winter taking down the black birch and the aroma was so powerful and so wonderful that they all had to stop and take it in. We all wound swapping stories of our parents and grandparents making home-made birch beer and root beer and such. It was really magnificent.
    Chuck

  7. Dean Smith → in United States
    Apr 19, 2012

    Just wanted to pass along that the gypsy moth was not the downfall of the once mighty Chestnut. It is a blight introduced by well meaning idiots in NYC from Chinese chestnut trees in 1904.

  8. Patrick → in VT
    Jul 07, 2012

    Thanks for writing an article about an under-appreciated tree (and a favorite of mine). One thing I would take issue with, however, is the comment that black birches are going to become more successful because of their ability to grow up above the fern later.  Here in southern Vermont, the black birches are one of the absolute last trees to leaf out in the spring, along with hickories and ash.  Perhaps this is a regional difference?

  9. Cynthia A Sharp → in Saratoga County
    Oct 11, 2012

    Thanks for the great article. I have black birch in relative abundance in a 50 acre woodlot. It is happily growing among sugar maples and red oaks and beech. The soil type is slightly acidic deep and loamy. I’m in the Hudson Valley somewhat and experience climate changes slightly delayed from surrounding hills.

    This tree has been marked as a favorite in my woods. I now keep a keen eye on its growth. I have harvested a few weaker trees for firewood study to learn the characteristics of the wood.  In a book by Rebecca Rupp called, “Red Oaks, Black Birches” she has stated that Honey is also used in a fermentation on the birch beer recipe. As this tree seems to produce large amounts of sap. The scent of wintergreen can be easily detected all the way down to the base of the tree. The scent does fade as the wood seasons.

    Its also quite fascinating the same oil of wintergreen is extracted from the tree as well as the wintergreen plant that forms a low groundcover in the Adirondack Mnts. As children we used to chew on the leaves of the plant.

    Thanks for the information on the sawmill statistics. Have never come across any info on the wood drying process. Not seen at sawmills anywhere and wondered why such gorgious wood is not timber harvested.

    Unfortunately the tree fights for space in the canopy and grows toward available light. Making it not so straight as its taller neighbors.

    For BTU’s its impressively competing with hickory and white oak. But feel its value is better served at the sawmill. Its heavier than black cherry and exposure to air gives it the same hue.(further studies from here)

    Love the Botanical illustration…I keep those items for personal reference and feel that is what makes your magazine very collectable. Keep up the great work!!

  10. Dan → in New York State
    Mar 09, 2014

    As a native of Wisconsin, the sweet birch was a new idea for me when I relocated to the East 15 years ago.  Having given it some attention in the Ulster County Catskills over the last six or seven years, I can report the following:  (1) in this region it makes tremendous growth, developing on the forest fringe like aspen but also able to thrive in density like maple or beech; (2) when dry, it is absolutely superior firewood, comparable to hornbeam or hophornbeam, better than ash or oak; (3) it is often described as “hard and heavy”, and it is—sharp sawblades are a must; (4) it mills well but does tend to warp, check, or move when air-drying, limiting the possibilities of longer boards or wider planks; (5) the subtle grain, pale hue, and considerable strength make it just right for contemporary tastes in flooring, cabinetry, etc.—hard maple is probably the most similar lumber.  Beyond all this, I find it a beautiful shade tree, extraordinarily branchy and leafy, and I also concur with all the above remarks about the evocative scent…  It leafs out relatively early in these parts, but that requires qualification:  I have observed some years in which poplar family trees are among the first to leaf out and some years in which they are toward the end; thus the birches (yellow, black, and white), depending on age and location are sometimes close to first and sometimes not.  Earlier than oaks and ashes for sure, and in autumn their leaves turn with just a bit of cold (pale yellow) but sometimes hold on the branches for a while.  They disintegrate almost immediately, as does the wood.  It is some of the least durable lumber in the northeast forest.

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