Description & Overview

Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) is a medium-sized tree that thrives in full sun to part shade, in moist, well-drained, and cool soils. It can tolerate rocky, drier soils more than other birch species as well as clay soils and road salt.

Unlike other birch varieties, Sweet Birch does not have white bark; however, it does have the most reliable and outstanding yellow fall color of any Betula. It also has a very fine texture, unlike other birches, with a multitude of delicate, tiny twigs. Sweet Birch is similar in shape to Ironwood but with a slight weeping form.

You may also know this plant as Black Birch, Cherry Birch, Mahogany Birch, or Mountain Mahogany.

Core Characteristics

Category: Tree

Wisconsin Native: No - Native to North America

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 3

Mature Height: 40-55 feet

Mature Spread: 35-50 feet

Growth Rate: Slow

Growth Form: Dense and pyramidal when young, becoming more rounded with age.

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade

Site Requirements: Moist, well - drained acidic soil; tolerant of clay and shallow/rocky soils. Intolerant of heavily compacted soils and urban conditions.

Flower: Male and female catkins flower in April before or with the leaves

Bloom Period: April

Foliage: Alternate, dark glossy green in summer

Fall Color: Bright yellow

Urban Approved: No

Fruit Notes: Cone - like fruit containing tiny two - winged brown nutlets that ripen in fall

Suggested Uses

The bark of Sweet Birch is reddish brown and almost black on younger trees (hence the common name cherry birch) maturing to a grayish-brown. When chewed or crushed, the twigs, bark, and foliage have a strong wintergreen taste and scent and are the origin of its other common name Sweet Birch. Leaves are glossy and bright green, with the telltale-toothed margins of other birches.

For the best fall color, plant in full sun. Birches tend to grow quickly when young, slowing down as they age, much like people! Sweet Birch is pyramidal when young, spreading more as it matures.

Sweet Birch is a lovely specimen tree, particularly with its fall color, lighting up the landscape in a wash of yellow.

They are a great option, albeit underused, in parks, golf courses, or campuses, as well as along woodland edges where they can naturalize. Tolerant of salt and little mess, Sweet Birch is a commendable street tree.

Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) is a medium-sized tree that thrives in full sun to part shade, in moist, well-drained, and cool soils. It can tolerate rock…
Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) is a medium-sized tree that thrives in full sun to part shade, in moist, well-drained, and cool soils. It can tolerate rock…

Wildlife Value

The buds, twigs, and catkins of Sweet Birch are relished by rabbits, grouse, and squirrels while the seeds are eaten by songbirds including chickadees, sparrows, redpolls, Pine Siskins, towhees, crossbills, and cardinals. The tree also provides shelter for wildlife and birds.

Sweet Birch is a host plant for several butterflies including the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), the Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus), the Green Comma (Polygonia faunus), Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilo glaucus), and White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis).

Maintenance Tips

Sweet Birch is low maintenance, requiring little pruning, if at all.

If pruning is necessary, it’s best to do so in the dormant season when the sap has stopped flowing.

Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) is a medium-sized tree that thrives in full sun to part shade, in moist, well-drained, and cool soils. It can tolerate rock…
Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) is a medium-sized tree that thrives in full sun to part shade, in moist, well-drained, and cool soils. It can tolerate rock…

Pests/Problems

Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: Yes
Rabbit Resistant: No

Like other birches, Sweet Birch is susceptible to a range of pest and disease issues, including aphids, birch skeletonizer, canker, leaf spot, and leaf rust. It is moderately resistant to bronze birch borer.

The best prevention includes proper siting-the right plant in the right place-and consistent watering practices, particularly in drought. A stressed tree tends to be more prone to pests and diseases.

Leaf Lore

The genus name Betula is the Latin name for “birch,” while other sources say it is Latin for “pitch” referring to the tarry substance that comes from the bark. Still, others say that Betula comes from Sanskrit and means “to shine” in reference to the bark. The specific epithet lenta means “tough” or “pliable” in reference to the flexible yet strong.

The wood of Sweet Birch is strong and heavy, making it an excellent material for flooring, furniture, veneer, trim, cabinets, and tool handles. When exposed to air, the wood darkens to resemble mahogany.

Perhaps the best-known byproduct of Sweet Birch is wintergreen oil which can be extracted from all parts of the tree. It was used in medicine and as a food and beverage flavoring and was in such high demand that the trees became rather scarce. To get one quart of oil required chipping and distilling 100 saplings and young trees! Synthetic wintergreen oil is now used commercially.

Much like a Sugar Maple, the sap of Sweet Birch can be tapped and made into birch syrup, vinegar, and beer.

Indigenous people used Sweet Birch in myriad ways. The Ojibwa used the bark to make birch canoes and to build homes and lodges, containers, baskets, trays, and dishes. Medicinally, Sweet Birch bark infusions and compounds were used by the Iroquois, Mohegan, Ojibwa, Cherokee, Algonquin, and Chippewa to treat dysentery, colds, fever, ease stomach issues, treat pneumonia, and ease pulmonary troubles. (http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=betula+lenta)

Companion Plants

Sweet Birch can stand beautifully on its own, but if you choose to plant companions, consider Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), or any number of Viburnum (Viburnum spp.).

Christmas (Polystichum acrostichoides), Cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea), or Ostrich (Matteuccia struthiopteris) ferns would all enjoy the shade cast by a Sweet Birch, as would Canada Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica), Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), or Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).

Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) is a medium-sized tree that thrives in full sun to part shade, in moist, well-drained, and cool soils. It can tolerate rock…
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Written by Johnson's Nursery