Black Birch

black birch bark

Fairview Town Crier
Roger Klinger

As a child, my favorite chewing gum was wintergreen and teaberry. Anything that had wintergreen flavor in it was a must for this rambunctious child, as I loved the sweet, minty flavor and still do, many decades later. It is such a refreshing taste and aroma so to encounter a native tree that is filled with wintergreen oils was a great treat as a young man who spent every moment of his free time, hiking the wilderness regions of West Virginia and Virginia.

Black birch, (Betula lenta) is a fairly common tree in the higher elevations and has a bark that is so similar to wild cherry that it is also nicknamed “cherry birch or sweet birch.” When I first encountered this tree, I was amazed by the beautiful glossy bark but when my friend and mentor broke a twig off a branch, stripped the bark with his teeth and gave me a piece of my own, I was delighted as I chewed the end and tasted a burst of wintergreen that filled my senses. It became a favorite ‘chewing stick” which was one of the traditional uses for this tree. Black birch existed in our cultures eons before the advent of dental care and was an important part of traditional native peoples culture and might have been considered one of natures first and most pleasant, original toothbrushes.

It has been a wild winter here in the Blue Ridge as November felt more like mid January with many cold nights approaching single digits, snow and ice whereas early December had a good number of days in the 50’s and 60’s. Such is the nature of the mountains so what lays in store for us in this New Year shall remain a mystery until it arrives. I went for one of my favorite ridge top hikes, enjoying the expansive views as all the naked trees were showing the beauty of their branches. I had just crossed under one of those magnificent ancient rhododendron tunnels that looked like it was part of the Hobbit landscape when I encountered an old favorite tree growing by the trails edge. I thought from the color of the bark that I knew what it was but with Black Birch, the easiest way to know for sure is to break off a small twig, scrape the soft bark off and smell. If it smells like strong wintergreen, which this tree did, it is black birch. As I gently chewed the twig, the wintergreen flavors were unleashed and that twig accompanied me for the next hour of my hike.

Black Birch gets its name from the bark of the tree and unlike its famous cousins, the white birch, it does not have a papery thin bark; rather the bark is thick and dense and the wood itself is much harder and more compact than other birch species. Black birch is a beautiful tree as its bark resembles that of black cherry: lustrous, smooth, and dark red on young trees, and black, with loose, curled, scaly black plates on old trees. These trees prefer moist, deep, slightly acid, well-drained soils but they also thrive on rocky, drier sites, where large specimens can grow into twisted, gnarly, magical trees.

A nickname for Black Birch is “mountain mahogany” as the strong wood is utilized for products that require solid construction such as furniture and flooring. Black Birch is native to eastern North America and its range extends from southern Maine down south into our Blue Ridge Mountains. The buds, twigs, and catkins provide food for grouse, deer, hare, and squirrels.

black birch leaves

Black birch was utilized for the production of wintergreen oil before the advent of synthetic chemicals. In fact, so many trees were once harvested for their wintergreen oils that the tree became scarce. In recent years, it has made a comeback from the days of over harvesting as it has thrived in the niche generated from the demise of the native chestnuts and is also growing well in areas where hemlock stands have been decimated by the wooly adelgid. Nature has a way of constantly adapting and shifting its energies in creative and surprising forms.

Black birch sap is also edible and the sap of these trees flows about a month later than maple trees. It can be gathered in a similar fashion and boiled down to make a molasses like syrup but requires 3 times the sap of maple trees to make a syrup.

Black birch is most famous not for its timber but for “birch beer.” The 1940’s classic book, the Natural History of Trees describes the process of making birch beer:

“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 – so the mountaineers tell us – will finish the job for you.”

Nature provides us with everything we need and is such a powerful force in our lives. We are all fortunate to live in a region surrounded by such exquisite natural beauty and wonder. The wise 19th century Hindu sage, Ramakrishna once said that “the winds of grace blow all the time and all we need do is set our sails.” Nature is filled with natural, free flowing grace that inspires and awakens us to greater healing and wholeness. Whether it be a beautiful bird song on a frosty morning, or the discovery of a sweet wintergreen flavored twig on a winter hike, may our lives all be enriched and awakened by the ever present flow of natural grace, beauty and delight in 2016.