Health Benefits and Uses of Yellow Birch

Health & Wellness

Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) || Health Benefits of Yellow Birch

Yellow Birch known as Betula alleghaniensis is the most valuable of the native birches. It is easily recognized by the yellowish-bronze exfoliating bark for which it is named. Yellow Birch belongs to the Birch Family (Betulaceae). The inner bark is aromatic and has a flavor of Wintergreen. This slow-growing long-lived tree is found with other hardwoods and conifers on moist well-drained soils of the uplands and mountain ravines. The plant is native to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Anticosti Island west through southern Ontario to extreme southeastern Manitoba; south to Minnesota and northeastern Iowa, east to northern Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania to northern New Jersey and New England and south in the Appalachian Mountains to eastern Tennessee and northeastern Georgia. Yellow Birch trees also provide food and breeding habitat for a number of birds. The small, upright cones of the Yellow Birch disintegrate slowly and release their seeds as spring approaches, providing a vital food source for wetland birds at a time when many other food sources are scarce. Pileated Woodpeckers, Fox Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, and Ruffed Grouse are among the bird species which feed on Yellow Birch seeds. In addition, the Yellow Birch is a common tree in the breeding habitat for several species of birds, including: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Mourning Warbler, Brown Creeper, and Northern Parula. Moreover, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Boreal Chickadees sometimes nest in Yellow Birch trees. In the Adirondacks, Broad-winged Hawks show a clear preference for Yellow Birch as a nest site. The range of the Yellow Birch extends from Newfoundland to northern Minnesota, south through Wisconsin and Michigan to Pennsylvania, and in the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia. In New York State, the Yellow Birch is found in most of the eastern counties, including those in the Catskills and the Adirondack Mountains, as well as some counties in western New York. The species, alleghaniensis, refers to the Allegheny Mountains where the tree is widespread. In the 19th Century the species was classified as B. lutea, from the Latin lutum for "yellow". The name "birch" itself is derived from an old Teutonic word. Yellow Birch is one of the largest of the eastern hardwoods. It is very similar to Sweet Birch, but easily distinguished by its bark. Yellow birch is named for its characteristic shiny-golden, peeling bark.

Yellow Birch is an aromatic, medium-sized, slow growing, long lived, typically single stemmed, deciduous tree that grows about 60 to 75 feet (18-23 m) in height and up to 2 feet (0.6 m) in diameter, and sometimes grows to 100 feet (30 m) in height and 4 feet (1.2 m) in diameter. The plant is often found growing on north facing slopes, swamps, stream banks, and rich woods. The plant prefers moist, well-drained soils of uplands and mountain ravines. It occurs on various soil types including glacial tills, outwash sands, lacustrine deposits, shallow loess, and residual soils derived from sandstone, limestone, igneous, and metamorphic rock. The root system of yellow birch is generally shallow but variable. There is a well-developed extensive lateral root system; roots spread horizontally or may penetrate more than 5 feet (1.5 m). Open-grown yellow birch crowns are long and wide spreading. In more dense forest, crowns are short and irregularly rounded. The trunk usually divides into a few spreading branches but lateral shade produces a straight trunk that extends nearly to the top of the tree. In dense stands the trunk is free of branches for over half the height of the tree.

Look for Yellow Birch along many of the trails at the VIC, growing as individual trees in mixed stands, near Eastern Hemlock and Hobblebush. The most convenient place to observe the Yellow Birch and compare this tree with the Paper Birch and other deciduous trees at the VIC is on the Barnum Brook Trail. This species is one of the eleven tree species marked with signage along this trail. The identified Yellow Birch is about half-way around the loop. If you take the left hand fork of the trail near the gazebo and walk the trail in a clockwise direction, the tree is beyond the bridge over Barnum Brook, just past the Hobblebush on the left-hand side of the trail.

Yellow Birch is little used medicinally, although a decoction of the bark is said to have been used by native North American Indians as a blood purifier. The Delaware, for instance, used a decoction of the bark as a emetic and cathartic. The Iroquois reportedly used a decoction as a treatment for skin ailments. The bark is a source of "Oil of Wintergreen". This does have medicinal properties, though it is mainly used as a flavouring in medicines.

Yellow Birch trees are an important plant for animals. Yellow Birch saplings are a favorite browse of White-tailed Deer. Moose, Eastern Cottontail, and Snowshoe Hare also use the plant for food. Red Squirrels cut and store the mature catkins and eat the seeds. American Beaver and North American Porcupine chew the bark.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are among the bird species whose breeding range includes Yellow Birch. These fascinating little birds sometimes choose Yellow Birch as a nest site. They also feed on sap wells excavated by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in Yellow Birch or Paper Birch. Ruby-throated Hummingbird on the Barnum Brook Trail at the VIC (6 August 2015).

Edible Uses of Yellow Birch

Like sugar maple and White Birch, Yellow Birch can be tapped in the spring (generally 3-4 weeks after sugar maple season) for plentiful sap. The sap can be mixed with sugar and honey for fermenting into a beer or vinegar. If boiled into a syrup, the wintergreen constituent will evaporate in the process.

A tea is made from the twigs and leaves. The dried leaves are used according to another report. An excellent flavour. The twigs and leaves have the flavour of Wintergreen and can be used as condiments. Birch bud tips, twigs, catkins, leaves and inner bark can all be used to make a tea with a subtle Wintergreen taste, for an occasional treat. They can also be used in cooking and baking to infuse a hint of Wintergreen. You can easily sample this Wintergreen when you break a twig, if you can reach a twig. Some folks like to chew and suck on the twigs as a trailside treat. Sweet/black birch has stronger flavoring, but it doesn’t grow this far north in Canada.

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".

Traditional Uses of Yellow Birch:

  • Yellow birch is little used medicinally, though a decoction of the bark has been used by the native North American Indians as a blood purifier, acting to cleanse the body by its emetic and cathartic properties.
  • Bark is a source of "Oil of Wintergreen". This does have medicinal properties, though it is mainly used as a flavoring in medicines.
  • Tea of the twigs and bark aids in eradication of the mouth of canker sores.
  • An infusion made from the leaves of the Birch has been used as a diuretic and cleansing agent to the urinary tract.
  • It has been used to treat gout, rheumatism and mild arthritic pain.
  • Decoction of the leaves has occasionally been used to prevent baldness, as is the fresh juice.
  • Decoction is also used as a sleeping aid before bed for insomnia.
  • The tea can also be used as a wash for skin complaints.
  • If the skin problems are severe or chronic, a decoction of the bark can be used as a wash or added to the bath.
  • Oil extracted from the buds or the bark can be used externally for acne, rheumatism and gout.
  • Tea prepared from twigs and bark can be helpful for boils and sores when taken internally as well as used as a wash.
  • Essential oil of Birch can ease sore muscles or joint pain if applied externally.

Culinary Uses of Yellow Birch:

  • Inner bark is cooked or dried and ground into a powder and used with cereals in making bread.
  • 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 is consumed raw or cooked.
  • The sap is harvested in early spring, before the leaves unfurl, by tapping the trunk. It flows abundantly, but the sugar content is much lower than maple sap.
  • Pleasant drink, it can also be concentrated into syrup or fermented into a beer.
  • Can be used to produce Birch beer, although Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) is favored for this purpose due to its higher content of methyl salicylate, the compound responsible for the distinct wintergreen aroma of these two species.
  • Can be used for producing a sweet syrup, a lot like how sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is used to produce maple syrup.
  • Tea is made from the twigs, inner bark and leaves.
  • Twigs and leaves have the flavor of Wintergreen and can be used as condiments.
  • Sap of yellow birch can be tapped for use as edible syrup.

Other Uses of Yellow Birch:

  • Bark is waterproof and has been used by native peoples as the outer skin of canoes, as roofing material on dwellings and to make containers such as buckets, baskets and dishes.
  • Wood is close-grained, very strong, hard, and heavy. The wood is too dense to float; it is used for furniture, cabinetry, charcoal, pulp, interior finish, veneer, tool handles, boxes, woodenware, and interior doors, tubs of wheels, floors etc.
  • Used for wood and considered the most valuable of the North American birches by the timber industry. However, still relatively inexpensive relative to other hardwoods.
  • The wood is too dense to float.
  • The wood is easy to work with but has poor decay resistance.
  • The wood can be stained and takes a high polish.
  • Wood is also often used as a fuel.
  • Yellow Birch is one of the principal hardwoods used in the distillation of wood alcohol, acetate of lime, charcoal, tar, and oils.
  • It also is a good edge tree for naturalized areas.
  • Yellow Birch chips can be used to produce ethanol and other products.
  • Bark can be used to build dwellings, lodges, canoes, storage containers, sap dishes, rice baskets, buckets, trays and dishes and place on coffins when burying the dead.
  • Yellow Birch chips can be used to produce ethanol and other products.
  • A dynamic accumulator gathering minerals or nutrients from the soil and storing them in a more bioavailable form, used as fertilizer or to improve mulch.

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