Sweet Birch

Mountain Medicine

Do we have any wintergreen lovers out there?  For years nearly all wintergreen flavoring was extracted from sweet birch trees (Betula lenta). Some people call them black birch, spice birch, cherry birch, or mahogany birch. Birch beer soda can even be found in many grocery stores. You can even tap the trees and harvest the sap like sugar maple.

The bark is smoother than other birches and reddish brown to black. Sweet birch tends not to grow in clumps unlike the more common river birch. Leaves have prominent veins and teeth along their edges that are fairly uniform. Sweet birch numbers are increasing now that virtually all wintergreen flavorings are synthetically produced.

While it is not a major timber producing tree, it can grow to 60 feet tall and big enough to be of value. The wood is hard, close-grained and used for making furniture, doors and cabinets. When exposed to air the wood darkens to look like mahogany, hence the nickname ‘mahogany birch.’

Unfortunately few specimens inhabit this part of the state, but it is common in the mountains. Sweet birch contains an aromatic oil called methyl salicylate, which is an aspirin derivative. As you might expect, it can be used as an analgesic.

I like the flavor of sweet birch tea and it will knock out a headache and lessen tooth and gum pain. The best part is that it does so with a pleasing wintergreen taste. You can extract the oil from twigs, but the best yields are derived from the inner bark of older trees. Root bark works even better.

Make parallel vertical cuts with a sharp knife or axe and cross-cut sections so you can pry out large pieces. Be careful not to girdle the trees or they will die within a couple years and your source will be gone. Also, the bark is easier to harvest in the spring when the cambium is active. Dry it at room temperature or lower to maintain good flavor.

Steep the tea in hot water or bring the water/bark mixture to a boil and remove from heat. Let the liquid stand until it is cool enough to drink. Sweeten it if you wish.

Extracts of sweet birch have been used to increase urinary output (more urine), for urinary tract infections and kidney stones. Some literature cites it as being a treatment for gout, arthritis, tumors, and cellulite. I even came across a few postings of using birch to treat hair loss. It hasn’t helped me. Be careful what you read.

Sweet birch contains methyl salicylate, so it should be avoided by people taking blood thinning medicine. Anyone with an aspirin allergy should abstain also. The chemicals in the sap can cause skin irritations in some people. However, these amounts are far less than the concentrations of methyl salicylate in common topical analgesic preparations.

As with anything new, test your sensitivity by trying sweet birch in moderation initially. If you find no aversion and few do, add this one to your repertoire of herbal teas. You’ll be glad you did.

Ted Manzer teaches Agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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