Betula utilis: A Potential Medicinal Plant
Authors: Poonam Kumari
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In India, we are using plants and herbs to cure the diseases because of medicinal properties of these plants. Herbals which form a part of our nutrition and provide us an additional therapeutic effect are in demand and Betula utilis is one of such plant. Betula utilis is a very important traditional medicinal plant which is widespread throughout the Himalayan region, growing at elevations up to 4,500 m (14,800 ft) commonly known as Bhoj patra and birch tree. There are about 250,00 species of genus Betula out of which more than one thousand plants have been found to possess considerable pharmacological properties. The specific epithet, utilis, refers to the many uses of the different parts of the tree. The bark of birch tree has been the subject of respect and admiration throughout prehistory and history in the modern world.Betula utilis bark is antiseptic and carminative. Betula utilis possess various pharmacological activities like antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antioxidant and anti HIV activities. Traditionally the bark of B. utilis is widely used in the treatment of various ailments and diseases such as wound healing, skin disinfectant, bronchitis, convulsions, leprosy and diseases of the blood and the ear. The white, paper-like bark of the tree was used in ancient times for writing Sanskrit scriptures and texts, writing of sacred mantras, with the bark placed in an amulet and worn for protection. According to the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia, the bark of B. utilis contains triterpenoids components such as betulin, lupeol and oleanolic acid-3-acetate. Therefore, the bioavailability and toxicity of the birch triterpene extracts have attracted high interest in recent years.

Taxonomical description:

Kingdom: Plantae, Division: Magnoliophyta, Class: Mangoliopsida, Order: Fagales, Family: Betulaceae Genus: Betula Species: utilis

Botanical description and distribution

Betula utilis D. Don is a moderate-sized tree that grows up to 20 m in height belongs to family Betulaceae. The bark is shining, reddish-white or white, with white horizontals smooth, lenticels. The outer bark consists of layers, exfoliating in broad horizontal rolls. The leaves are ovate-acuminate, elliptic, and irregularly serrate. The flowers bloom in May June, in pendulous spikes. The flowers are monoecious and are pollinated by wind. Seeds are thin and winged. The plant prefers light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils, requires well-drained soil and can grow in heavy clay soil. The plant prefers acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland).

Pharmacological properties

Anticancer activity: Betula utilis contains betulin that can be easily converted into betulinic acid. Studies revealed that betulinic acid inhibits growth of malignant melanoma and cancers of the liver and the lung. Betulinic acid was identified as a highly selective growth inhibitor of human melanoma, neuroectodermal and malignant tumour cells and was reported to induce apoptosis in these cells. Anticancer agents with different modes of action have been reported to trigger apoptosis in chemo selective cells.

Anti HIV activity: Betulinic acid has been found to inhibit HIV-1 replication. Based on its chemical structure, betulinic acid derivatives have been reported as inhibitors of HIV-1 lentry , HIV-protease. Since a number of betulinic acid derivatives have been shown to inhibit HIV-1 at a very early stage of the viral life cycle, these compounds have the potential to become useful additions to current anti-HIV therapy, which relies primarily on combination of reverse transcriptase and protease inhibitors.

Antimicrobial activity: Betulinic acid extracted from the bark of Betula utilis, has antibacterial activity against some important human pathogenic bacteria like Citrobacter sp., Escherichia coli,Klebsiella pneumonia, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus mirabilis, Salmonella typhi, Salmonella paratyphi, Shigella boydii, Shigella flexneri, Shigella sonnei, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus faecalis and it mostly affect the gram positive bacteria.

Antioxidant activity: Betulinic acid extracted from the bark of Betula utilis is potent antioxidant. Though B. utilis has free radical scavenging activity, it reduces free radicals which may stop the free radical initiation or retard free radical chain reaction in the propagation of the oxidant mechanism.

Anti-inflammatory activity: It has been reported that the ability of methanolic and water extract of Betula utilis reduce free radicals which may stop the free radical initiation or retard free radical chain reaction in the propagation of the oxidation mechanism. This indicates that the plants are more useful in the treatment of inflammation. During inhibition the activity of Betula utilis was found to be less in lipoxygenase enzyme. It may act on free radical to reduce the inflammation. Lipoxygenases (LOX’s) are sensitive to antioxidants, and the most of their action may consist in inhibition of lipid hydroperoxide formation due to scavenging of lipidoxy or lipidperoxy-radicals formed in course of enzymic peroxidation.

Uses of Betula utilis:

  • The bark of Himalayan birch was used centuries ago in India as paper for writing lengthy· scriptures and texts in Sanskrit and other scripts.
  • The bark of B. utilis is widely used in Ayurveda and Unani system of medicine, in the treatment of various ailments and diseases such as skin disinfectant, diseases of the blood and the ear, convulsions, wound healing, bronchitis, leprosy etc.
  • The leaves of the plant show efficacy in treatment of urinary tract infections and in kidney and bladder stones. The fungal growth (bhujra-granthi) has also long been used in local traditional medicine.
  • The wood is used for constructions of buildings, houses etc.
  • The foliage is used for fodder.
  • The most widespread use is for firewood, which has caused large areas of habitat to be eliminated or reduced.
CONCLUSION: The manifold properties of Betula utilis made it a true miracle of nature. The stem bark used in India for the treatment of various diseases. Betula utilis possesses various phytochemical and pharmacological properties. Numerous studies have been conducted on different parts of Betula utilis, but this plant has not yet developed as a drug by pharmaceutical industries. A detailed and systematic study is requisite for identification, cataloguing and documentation of plants, which may provide a significant way for the encouragement of the traditional knowledge of the herbal medicinal plants.

About Author / Additional Info:
Assistant Professor in Horticulture