Herbs & Plants

Betula lenta

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Botanical Name ; Betula lenta
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Fagales
Family: Betulaceae
Genus: Betula
Subgenus: Betulenta
Species: B. lenta

Synonyms:  Betula carpinifolia.

Common Names :Sweet Birch , Black Birch, Cherry Birch, Mahogany Birch, or Spice Birch.

Habitat :  Betula lenta is  native to eastern North America, from southern Maine west to southernmost Ontario, and south in the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia.
It grows in the rich woodlands, preferring north-facing slopes and moist soils. It is also found on rocky soils.

It is a medium-sized deciduous tree reaching 20 m tall with a trunk up to 60 cm diameter. In younger trees the bark is characteristic of most Birches with smooth bark and horizontal fissures. It can sometimes be mistakenly identified as a Cherry tree. In some older tree specimens the bark can (unlike most birches)develop vertical cracks into irregular scaly plates revealing rough darkish brown bark patterns. This however, does not occur in all specimens. The twigs, when scraped, have a strong scent of oil of wintergreen. The leaves are alternate, ovate, 5-10 cm long and 4-8 cm broad, with a finely serrated margin. The flowers are wind-pollinated catkins 3-6 cm long, the male catkins pendulous, the female catkins erect. The fruit, maturing in fall, is composed of numerous tiny winged seeds packed between the catkin bracts

It is in flower in April, and the seeds ripen in October. The flowers are monoecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but both sexes can be found on the same plant) and are pollinated by Wind.Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils, prefers well-drained soil and can grow in heavy clay soil. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils and can grow in very acid soils.
It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil.

An easily grown plant, it succeeds in a well-drained loamy soil in a sheltered position. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Dislikes wet soils. Shade tolerant. Cherry birch is said to tolerate an annual precipitation of ca 60 to 150cm, an average annual temperature range of 5 to 12°C, and a pH of 4.5 to 7.5. Hybridizes freely with other members of this genus. The bruised foliage has a strong smell of wintergreen. A good plant to grow near the compost heap, aiding the fermentation process. Trees can be coppiced on a cycle of 5 years or more. Trees are notably susceptible to honey fungus. Special Features: Attracts birds, North American native, Inconspicuous flowers or blooms.

Seed – best sown as soon as it is ripe in a light position in a cold frame. Only just cover the seed and place the pot in a sunny position. Spring sown seed should be surface sown in a sunny position in a cold frame. If the germination is poor, raising the temperature by covering the seed with glass can help. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in a cold frame for at least their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. If you have sufficient seed, it can be sown in an outdoor seedbed, either as soon as it is ripe or in the early spring – do not cover the spring sown seed. Grow the plants on in the seedbed for 2 years before planting them out into their permanent positions in the winter.

Edible Uses:
Inner bark – cooked or dried and ground into a powde. Sweet and spicy. The dried inner bark can be used as a thickener in soups etc or can be added to flour when making bread etc. Inner bark is generally only seen as a famine food, used when other forms of starch are not available or are in short supply[K]. Sap – raw or cooked. A sweet flavour. It is harvested in early spring, before the leaves unfurl, by tapping the trunk. The flow is best on sunny days following a heavy frost. A delicious drink, it can also be concentrated into a syrup or sugar. The sap can be fermented to make birch beer or vinegar. An old English recipe for the beer is as follows:- “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.”. The dried leaves and bark from the larger roots are a delightful tea substitute. A wholesome, agreeable tea is made from the essential oil contained in the inner bark and twigs. This essential oil is also used as a wintergreen flavouring in foods.

Medicinal Uses: The cambium (the layer directly under the bark) is eaten in the spring, cut into strips like vermicelli.  The bark, in the form of an infusion is used as a general stimulant and to promote sweating.  As a decoction or syrup, it is used as a tonic for dysentery and is said to be useful in genito-urinary irritation.  The flavor of wintergreen and birch bark, in the form of a tea, was popular with Native Americans and European settlers.  The juice of the leaves once made a gargle for mouth sores.  Throughout the centuries, the sap has been used in making medicinal wine and were made into a diuretic tea.  Also an ingredient in skin lotions.

Other Uses:    Landscape Uses:Specimen, Woodland garden.
Betula lenta was used commercially in the past for production of oil of wintergreen before modern industrial synthesis; the tree’s name reflects this scent of the shoots.

The sap flows about a month later than maple sap, and much faster. The trees can be tapped in a similar fashion, but must be gathered about three times more often. Birch sap can be boiled the same as maple sap, but its syrup is stronger (like molasses).

Betula lenta’s leaves serve as food for some lepidopteran caterpillars. See List of Lepidoptera that feed on birches.
Known Hazards: The essential oil obtained from the bark contains 97 – 99% methyl salicylate. This is very toxic when taken orally, and it can also be absorbed through the skin, resulting in human fatalities. As little as 4, 700 mg can be fatal in children. The aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbons in birch tar are irritating to the skin. Do not use in patients with oedema or with poor kidney or heart functions.

Disclaimer:The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider




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