Black Birch (Betula lenta) : Black Birch Oil

Lead Up to Trees at UVM (Black Birch)

One of UVM's beautiful greens from the ground level (Lewis-Slammon, 2013). 

The Black Birch contains Wintergreen oil which gives the twigs an extremely distinctive taste. The oil found in the Black Birch is chemically identical to that found in the Wintergreen plant, which normally grows in mountainous regions. It is said to be a fluke of nature that the same substance is produced from two separate species. However, it is far easier to extract and produce the oil from the Black Birch than the Wintergreen. The oil does not exist in its proper form within the Black Birch tree or the Wintergreen plant. It must undergo a process in which plant enzymes act upon glycosides.

To make the oil, the plant material must first be chopped and crushed. Then, the macerated material is left in warm water in a still overnight. Distillation takes about 2/3 of the next day, wherein the oil, which is heavier than water, settles to the bottom of the still. It occurs in stills that typically have a capacity of 200 cubic feet and have a thick layer of copper along the bottom to prevent leakage. The typical yield is about 0.5% oil. The majority of oil production occurs in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Tennessee, and the Carolinas (around the Southern Appalachians). In Northern Pennsylvania, the production of wintergreen oil from Black Birches is a wintertime activity used to supplement the yearly income of farmers. There are two Grades of oil: Northern and Southern. There is no chemical difference between the two grades, but the Northern has higher prices attributed to it since it supposedly has a superior fragrance.

The key component of Wintergreen oil is methyl salicylate, a powerful medicinal. It is so powerful that a dose of 5 grams could prove fatal to a child. The therapeutic properties of the oil stem from this presence of methyl salicylate. Oil is good for treating sprains and rheumatism. The synthetic variety of the oil can legally be used in medications as long as it is labeled, but methyl salicylate from the natural source is preferred for flavoring. Once produced, the wintergreen oil is used in medicines and for flavoring candy, candles, gelatin, dental products, and beverages (especially carbonated ones, such as Root beer). A component of the oil, Salicylic acid, is also used as a coupling agent in dyes and paints and as a preservative for glues and leather goods.