Eastern Shore Food Lab

Betula nigra - River Birch

Betula nigra is a native birch tree that thrives in the wet areas of the Eastern shore.

Harvest its sap to create a sugar substitute or concentrated syrup, or ferment the birch-water to brew a refreshing ale.

Scientific Name: Betula nigra
Common Name: River birch
Plant Family: Betulaceae (birch family)

Etymology:Betula” comes from the Gaulish “betu-” meaning bitumen, or asphalt. This refers to how the Gauls uses extracted tar from birches.

Edible Parts

Harvest Betula nigra sap in early spring before the leaves unfurl. The sap can be used as a sweetener, can be fermented, can be used in drinks, or can be concentrated into a syrup. The inner bark, leaves, and twigs can be made into a warming tea. In addition, the bark is a source of wild yeast that can be used to make a yeast starter solution.

Historic Uses

The Cherokee used chewed Betula nigra leaves as an antidiarrheal, cold remedy, urinary aid, and gastrointestinal aid. The Chippewa created a decoction from Betula nigra bark to help with stomach pain.

Habitat

Native to eastern North America, Betula nigra grow best in well-drained, moist soils, and they can be found near stream banks or swampy areas.

How to Identify

Betula nigra has glossy, triangular green leaves that are about 2-3 inches long. It has double-toothed margins that turn yellow in fall and its leaves are arranged alternately. The bark is a cinnamon color and once mature, it curls and peels. Its fruits are cone-like and brown. Betula nigra can be either single or multi-stemmed. Betula nigra has monoecious flowers called catkins where the male catkins are brown and drooping and the female catkins are green and upright.

Additional Information

Trees in the Betula genus are pioneers, meaning that they are the first to regrow in an ecosystem that has undergone a fire or disturbance. When the leaf buds begin to swell and the bark peels off more than normal, that is how you know the tree is ready to be tapped for sap. Betula nigra wood can be used for grilling and smoking, and it is considered a medium wood that is great for meat, fish, and poultry.

Planting Considerations

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-9
  • Native Range: Eastern United States
  • Forest Garden Layer: canopy
  • Permaculture Functions: controls erosion, aids in fermentation process if planted near compost
  • Soil Moisture: moist to wet
  • Soil Texture: clay, loamy
  • Soil pH: acidic
  • Height: 40-70+ ft.
  • Spread: 50 ft.
  • Growth rate: height increases 13-24 inches per year
  • Sun: full sun and partial shade
  • Bloom: February-March, green and brown foliage
  • Attracts: birds, butterflies
  • Tolerates: air pollution, black walnut, clay soil, deer- and borer-resistant, salt, honey fungus, moderate flooding, moderate drought, heat, shade
  • Drawbacks: hydrocarbons in the birch tar can be irritating to skin, tree is susceptible to aphids, leaf miner, and iron chlorosis if planted in high pH soils.

Sources

  • Baudar, Pascal The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016.
  • Ellis, Barbara W. Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Meredith, Leda Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plum to Wineberries. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2014.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1998.

Web Sources