Sweet Birch

Sweet Birch
Sweet Birch (Betula lenta)


  • Scientific name: Betula lenta
  • Kingdom: Plantae - Plants
  • Division: Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
  • Class: Magnoliopsida - Dicotyledons
  • Family:Betulaceae - the Birch Family
  • Genus: Betula L. - Birch
  • Life Cycle: Perennial


Sweet Birch closely resemblesYellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis.The bark is the best way to differentiate between Sweet Birch and Yellow Birch. Sweet Birch bark is non-peeling and lustrous reddish-black. In contrast,the bark of Yellow Birchis yellowish-gray, and peels into loosely fitting strips (Duncan, 1988). Furthermore, Sweet Birch bark is smooth and prominently encircled with horizontal lenticels (corky spots which allow gas exchange with the air) reminiscent of cherry bark (Grimm, 2002). Twigs of the Sweet Birch, which are quite flexible, exude a distinctive wintergreen odor and taste when broken. They are thin and have prominent lenticels.

Sweet Birch leaves are alternate and simple with doubly saw-toothed margins.

The tree’s flowers are wind pollinated and monoecious - male and female flowers on the same tree. The fruit consists of cone-like strobili which readily disintegrate when mature.


The range of Sweet Birch extends from southern Maine, south to Alabama and west to Ohio and southern Canada. In the southern reaches of its range, it is mostly found in the cooler highlands (Little, 1996) Sweet Birch is tolerant of acidic and clayey soils and prefers cool and moist uplands.

Common names:

Common names include Sweet Birch, Cherry Birch, Black Birch

Other Facts:

The heavy and hard wood of Sweet Birch is commonly used in furniture manufacture. Formerly it was used as a substitute for mahogany. The figured burls are especially sought after (Grimm, 2003).

In the springSweet Birch can be tapped for syrup in the same manner as the maples (Elpel, 2001). Throughout Appalachia, including the Shenandoah Park area, birch sap was fermented into a beverage known as “birch beer”. Donald Culross Peattie gives an account of the recipe: “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 will finish the job for you.” (Peattie, 1991).

In addition to birch beer, the tree was the source of the much prized oil of wintergreen. This extract was used to impart a wintergreen flavor to everything from candies to medicine. In fact, the oil itself, methyl salicylate, has medicinal properties known and used by the Native Americans. It can alleviate headaches and reduce fever. Not surprisingly, synthetic salicylic acid is the main ingredient in modern aspirin. (Angier, 1978)

Prior to the commercial use of Sweet Birch for the extraction of wintergreen oil, the source of the oil was the diminutive woodland plant known as wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). When the mountaineers discovered that more oil could be extracted from Sweet Birch, the dye was cast. George Ellison states that “After all of the choice bark from the larger trees has been stripped and processed, the birch distillers turned to birch saplings – using both bark and wood chips – as their source. It required 100 or so of these saplings to render a single quart of the oil from the crude stills.” (Ellison, 2003) Unfortunately the industry was decimating Sweet Birch throughout Appalachia. The treewas to remain at the frontline of the wintergreen oil industry until a synthetic substitute was found.

Today the black birches have made a comeback. These ancient sentinels still guard the fog-shrouded upper reaches of Shenandoah National Park, exhaling bittersweet wintergreen memories to those fortunate enough to visit their eerie haunts.

References and Links:

Angier, Bradford. 1978. Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants. Stackpole Books. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. p. 56-60.

Duncan, Wilbur H. and Marian B., 1988. Trees of the Southeastern United States. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. p. 164-5. p. 230.

Elpel, Thomas J., 2001. Botany in a Day. HOPS Press. Pony, Montana. p. 56.

Grimm, William Carey. 2002. The Illustrated Book of Trees. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. p. 354-7.

Little, Elbert L. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York. p. 364-6.

Peattie, Donald C. 1991. A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts. p. 172-4.

Ellison,George. 2003. Old-time uses for birch in Smoky Mountain News. Waynesville, North Carolina.

Further information about Sweet Birch can be found in:

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) Report U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Germplasm Resource Information Network database which is sponsored by the Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

PLANTS National Database, a website supported by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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