Herbs & Plants

Betula populifolia

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Botanical Name: Betula populifolia
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Fagales
Family: Betulaceae
Genus: Betula
Subgenus: Betula
Species: B. populifolia

Synonyms: Betula acuminata, Betula cuspidata Schrad. ex Regel

Common Name: Gray Birch

Habitat: Betula populifolia is native to Eastern N. America – Quebec to Virginia and west to Indiana. It is found on the margins of swamps and ponds, it also commonly grows in dry sandy or gravelly barren soils, growing well in poor almost sterile soils.

Betula populifolia is a deciduous Tree growing quickly to 20 to 30 feet tall and 15 inch trunk diameter, with an irregular open crown of slender branches. The tree often has multiple trunks branching off of an old stump. The leaves are 5-7.5 cm long by 4–6 cm wide, alternately arranged, ovate, and tapering to an elongated tip. They are dark green and glabrous above and paler below, with a coarsely serrated margin. The bark is chalky to grayish white with black triangular patches where branch meets trunk. It is most easily confused for the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) by means of its bark; it is smooth and thin but does not readily exfoliate like paper birch does.It is in flower in April, and the seeds ripen in September. Bloom Color is brown. It’s form is Pyramidal, Upright or erect. The flowers are wind-pollinated catkins 5–8 cm long, the male catkins pendulous and the female catkins erect. The fruit, maturing in autumn, is composed of many tiny winged seeds packed between the catkin bracts.
Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils, prefers well-drained soil and can grow in heavy clay and nutritionally poor soils. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It cannot grow in the shade. It prefers dry or moist soil. The plant is not wind tolerant.

Landscape Uses:Firewood, Specimen. Succeeds in a well-drained loamy soil in a sunny position. Tolerates most soils doing well on poor ones and on heavy clays. A fast growing tree, though it rarely lives longer than 50 years. It is a pioneer species of abandoned fields, burnt-over lands, cleared woodlands etc. A fairly wind-tolerant plant, but it is shallow-rooted and older trees are often uprooted by winds and heavy snow in the wild. Hybridizes freely with other members of this genus, especially with B. papyrifera. A good plant to grow near the compost heap, aiding the fermentation process. Trees are notably susceptible to honey fungus. Special Features: North American native, Naturalizing, 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 meal. The meal can be used as a thickener in soups etc, or be added to flour when making bread, biscuits 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. Sap – sweet. Harvested in early spring, before the leaves unfurl, by tapping the trunk. The flow is best on warm days that follow frosty nights. The sap is drunk as a sweet beverage or it 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.”.

Medicinal Uses:
The bark is astringent. a decoction has been used to treat bleeding piles. Scrapings of the inner bark have been used to treat swellings in infected cuts. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Betula species for infections of the urinary tract, kidney and bladder stones, rheumatism .

Other Uses:
Charcoal; Pioneer; Wood.
A pioneer species, readily invading old fields, burnt-over or cleared land and providing suitable conditions for other woodland trees to become established. It is an excellent crop for very poor soils, where it grows rapidly and affords protection to the seedlings of more valuable and slower-growing trees. Since this species is short-lived and not very shade tolerant, it is eventually out-competed by these other trees. Wood – close-grained, soft, light, weak, not durable. It weighs 36lb per cubic foot. Unimportant commercially, the wood is used locally for making clothes pegs, spools, pulp, charcoal and quite commonly as a fuel.

Known Hazards: 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 supplement, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.