Birch (Betula allaghaniensis) is from the Betulaceae or Birch family, which has about 6 different genera and some 120 species. Historically it was known as Betula lutea, but is now generally known as Betula allaghaniensis. The essential oil is steam distilled from wood, containing 90+% Methyl Salicylate and is very similar in chemistry to Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) of the Ericaceae or Heather family. Wintergreen is steam distilled from leaves and bark, and also contains 90+% Methyl Salicylate, which is also found in the herbal supplement White Willow Bark, and is similar to the salicylic acid found in aspirin. White Willow Bark (Salix alba) comes from a tree native toe Europe and Asia, the leaves of which are covered with fine white hairs. Thus the name refers to the “White Willow” tree, named for the fine white hairs on the leaves, rather than the bark being white, which is not the case. White Willow Bark has origins dating back to use by the Greeks as early as 400 B.C. for its pain relieving properties. White Willow Bark was the original, natural counterpart of aspirin, from which the salicin was extracted, As this was expensive and time-consuming, a synthetic version was first developed by a German scientist in 1852. Due to the harsh effects of the synthetic on the stomach, Bayer company presently developed a somewhat milder synthetic marketed under the name of Aspirin, which is still irritating to the stomach lining, however. Natural White Willow Bark does not have the irritating qualities of the synthetic and is still widely sold as an herbal supplement. It is generally sold in capsules or as an extract or tea, however, and seldom found as an essential oil
Birch, as in Betula alleghaniensis, has origins in the USA, Canada, and Scandinavia . Like Wintergreen, it may support healthy bones, and healthy liver function. A closely related species is Sweet Birch, or Betula lenta. Sweet Birch also grows in the northeast and was historically harvested for “oil of wintergreen” even more so than from the Wintergreen plant (Gaultheria procumbens). In the early 1900s, Sweet Birch was abundant in the mountains of Pennsylvania, where mountaineers would use crude stills to roast and steam the wood to extract the oils. On average, about a hundred small sapling birch trees were required to be chopped and ground to produce a quart of oil. Sold by the quart to country storekeepers, it would make its way in turn to wholesale druggists who would refine it and use it for flavoring in candies, medicine, and drugs. (American Forest Trees, Henry H. Gibson, 1913).
Birch has the historical tradition of being used by Native Americans and early European settlers to flavor their tea. It may support a strong circulatory system, maintain a healthy urinary tract, and promote beautiful skin.
It is important to understand, however, that as with many essential oils, there are a number of different species, and these vary in therapeutic benefits and properties. Betula alleghaniensis is known as Yellow Birch, and is considered the most valuable of the native birch species. The name comes from its yellowish bronze peeling bark. It is the inner bark which is aromatic and has a flavor and fragrance similar to wintergreen oil. Half of its growth volume in North America is in Quebec. According to the USDA Forest Service Silvics Manual, Volume 2, widespread mortality of Yellow Birch, known as “birch dieback” occurred between 1932 – 55, affecting even virgin stands.
Although Birch essential oil is offered by several companies, it is generally Sweet Birch (Betula lenta). Claims and advice given by the companies offering them varies widely. One company claims their Birch (B. lenta) contains nothing but natural birch oil, and as such is safer than Wintergreen because of Wintergreen’s high Methyl Salicylate content. Yet true natural Birch oil would have the same or very similar Methyl Salicylate content as Wintergreen, and the chemical components posted for this Birch oil do list Methyl Salicylate as the main component. They claim it may be applied or ingested without dilution. All of this suggests a limited knowledge and understanding of the chemistry of the essential oils offered and/or likelihood the oil is not what it is represented to be. Another popular essential oils company offers “wild grown” Betula lenta claims that both it and Wintergreen are poisonous if taken internally and should never be ingested. Such a warning is completely contradictory to widely published historical medicinal use of birch oil and strongly suggests that it is not pure and natural essential oil at all, but synthetic Methyl salicylate, which in fact IS toxic.
Highly regarded Chemist, Dr. David Stewart explains that the 19 atoms of natural Methyl Salicylate occur only in one isomer (molecular shape). Synthetic versions may have different isomers which arrange these atoms in different ways. The natural isomer is the one which fits our cellular receptor sites and promotes healing, while most synthetic isomers of Methyl Salicylate are toxic and have no healing properties. Dr. Stewart goes on to explain that in fact a majority of prescription drug compounds are manufactured as pairs of isomers, only one of which has the beneficial properties the drug is intended to provide, while the other is responsible for the side of which, many of which may be harmful. It is impossible for the labs to manufacture only one isomer and equally impossible, or too expensive, to separate the two isomers.
Young Living does not offer Birch essential oil at this time as for the past several years they have been unable to find a reliable source which meets their stringent quality standards. However, they do have an excellent source of pure Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) which provides very similar therapeutic benefits. Extreme care should be taken in finding a quality source of Birch and Wintergreen essential oils. True therapeutic grade Birch, either Sweet Birch or Yellow Birch, is almost impossible to find as it is difficult and expensive to produce and very rare to find any which has not been extended or adulterated with synthetic Methyl Salicylate. Pure and natural therapeutic grade Wintergreen also is difficult to find, and the only source I trust for this is Young Living. To learn more about different therapeutic grade essential oils and how they help promote a healthy lifestyle, please visit The Oil Well
For more information on the leading essential oil companies, their history, testing, and quality standards, check out the 45 page Young Living/DoTerra report
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These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and this information is for educational purposes only and not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.