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Sweet birch is also known as cherry birch due to its brownish-black, cherry-like, scaly bark that smells strongly of wintergreen. The bark is smooth and gray when the tree is young. This beautiful species is widely known in the midwest for its gorgeous yellow fall foliage, and attractive catkins, cones, and nutlets. Its young, pyramidal shape becomes more rounded and irregular as it matures. Any pruning should be done in summer to prevent sap loss that can weaken the tree.


Because it tolerates so many conditions, birches are one of the first trees to colonize abandoned fields and disturbed sites. Sweet birch is found in habitats from rich, cool, moist forests to rockier, more-exposed sites. Often used on campuses or parklands for its dappled shade and upright form. Beautiful in gardens and naturalized areas.


Plant Characteristics:

Grows 40-80’ tall in the wild and 35-45’ tall in landscaped settings.


Prefers full to part sun.


Does best in rich, consistently moist, well-drained soil, but adapts readily to acid, alkaline, sandy, chalky, and heavier clay soils.


3-4” male catkins form on the ends of twigs in autumn, elongate in early spring and turn yellowish-purple. Reddish-green female catkins, shorter and standing upright, appear in April.


During summer, the cones break apart to expose small, winged nutlets that contain seeds for wind dispersal.


Glossy green leaves are oval and 3-6” long.


Wildlife Value:

Butterflies, bees, and other insects visit catkins in spring for pollen. Thrushes, waxwings, wood warblers, finches, mockingbirds, thrashers, chickadees, titmice, orioles, cardinals, grosbeaks, crows, jays, sparrows, nuthatches, vireos, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and wrens feast on the insects, buds, blooms, and seeds. The catkins are an important soft mast for grouse, and the trees provide shelter for wildlife. The solitary leaf-cutter bee uses pieces of the leaves to line the cells of its nest. A caterpillar host plant for 317 species of moths and butterflies, including the mourning cloak, eastern comma, and dreamy duskywing butterflies (pictured here in that order).


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Native Americans used sweet birch to treat diarrhea, milky urine, colds, dysentery, soreness, and as a spring tonic.

The sap, which flows later than maple sap, may be boiled down into a strong-tasting syrup. Birch beer is made by boiling the sap and adding honey before fermenting. Vinegar is produced from fermented sap.


Oil of wintergreen, obtained from bark and wood of young trees, was used to flavor medicines and candy. This destroyed large numbers of trees and led to a threatened status for the species. Now that the oils are produced synthetically, the trees are no longer endangered.


The inner bark may be eaten raw as an emergency food. The twigs and inner bark are steeped to make tea. With their scent and taste of wintergreen, twigs make ideal ‘wilderness’ toothbrushes.

Birch, Sweet, Betula lenta

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  • We happily purchase or trade other plant material for locally gathered native seeds. Please provide pictures of the mature plant if possible, ideally fruiting or flowering for best ID

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