That tell-tale smell: Getting to know the Sweet Birch

This is weird, I thought, as I stood in a grove of uniform trees on top of Sleepy Creek Mountain.

I was five miles from any blacktop road, sort of following a jeep trail that traces the top of the mountain.

All around me, tall slender trees reached upwards. It was unlike other places on that mountain, where thick century-old hardwoods create big open spaces under their canopy, carpeted with dry leaves and furnished with tumbles of boulders. In this grove, stretching maybe five acres on the crest of the mountain, the smooth trunks cast a shine and the trees stood closer together. I felt like I had wandered, for a moment, into a different forest.

The cut-edge leaves and smooth bark had me confused – looking like a cherry tree, but with no sign of fruit or the shape of cherry trees I knew. Like I usually do when I’m curious about something along a hike, I took several photos of the trees — close-ups of the leaves and a wide shot of the grove. Walking out of that section of woods, I turned back to look at it one last time. Since the spot was located in the center of a 10-mile end-to-end hike I didn’t often have time for, I was pretty sure it would be awhile before I got back there. Years, it turns out.

Back at home, though, a few pictures kept that spot in the front of my mind. An hour or two of online searches convinced me I had been standing in a grove of Sweet Birch trees, which are native to our part of West Virginia. I studied the shape of the leaves and the bark in photos, hoping to run across them along another hike. It wasn’t long before I did.

One true test of whether you’re standing next to a Sweet Birch tree is how a young branch smells when you break it off the tree. Catch the scent of wintergreen? That’s a Sweet Birch. For those a little grittier, chewing the young bark gives the same flavor. Not a Sweet Birch? That branch just tastes like —  well — old bark. (General note: it’s best not to randomly chew on branches in the woods.)

Fall birch leaf and trunk.

Sweet Birch trees became a hot commodity because of their wintergreen flavor. Young bark delivered the most powerful dose of it, so the trees were widely grown and harvested continually to supply medicine and candy makers with the flavoring. Birch beer – that more potent cousin of root beer – was another product made from the sap or bark of the birch. Artificial flavoring was eventually swapped out for the natural oil from the birch, leaving the trees to rebound in forests. You can still find recipes for making birch beer from branches, if you’re so inclined and trust the source.

The grove of Sweet Birch trees I wandered into that one October day on top of Sleepy Creek Mountain is still a mysterious place to me. It could be that a previously timbered area there filled itself in with that one variety of tree instead of a mix of shrubs and other saplings. Maybe birches were planted there when there was a demand for the wintergreen-flavored oil from the bark, and never harvested. I’ve since found a few other spots where the sweet birch dominates the forest canopy for a few acres, surrounded by maples or mixed oaks. In fall, these groves are easily spotted by the carpet of golden leaves they drop among the boulders and rocks. In any season, the best way to tell if you’re standing in the birches is to snap off a small branch and take a sniff. Catching a whiff of that wintergreen scent just never gets old.

Birch drops a yellow carpet of leaves in fall.

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