White Birch – Fagales Betulaceae Betula pubescens


Identification & Description:
The White Birch is a small to medium sized deciduous tree which grows to 70 or 80 feet in height. As far as trees go it doesn’t live very long, only about 140 years. Small hear-shaped leaves are found at the ends of drooping twigs and branches. The paper birch has both male and female flowers called catkins. These turn into little winged nutkins, which ripen in early August to mid September. The wings help the seeds to fly away from the parent tree so there won’t be competition for food and water.

You can identify this tree by its white bark which peels easily and is marked by narrow horizontal stripes. White birch trees can either have one slender stem or several stems. Moose like to browse on the young trees and will eat off the tops. This forces the tree to send up more stems.
The paper birch doesn’t like shade and is the first tree to grow back in places that have had a fire or where trees have been cut.

Although moose and white-tailed deer will eat the leaves and tender shoots of the paper birch, it isn’t their favorite food. Porcupines like to eat the bark and rabbits will eat the seedlings and young saplings. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers will peck little holes in the bark and feed on the sap. Hummingbirds and squirrels also drink the sap from the sap wells the sapsuckers made.

The bark is often used as a fire starter because it burns even when its wet. Native Americans also used the bark to cover their canoes. They also used it to make baskets, baby carriers, mats, torches and moose calls. Because the wood was strong and flexible it was made into spears, bows and arrows, snowshoes and sleds. The wood is now used for building lumber to make veneer, pulpwood and plywood. Syrup, wine, beer, and medicinal tonics are made from the sap.

The white birch is found in Newfoundland, Labrador, Canada, and from New England to North Carolina in the United States. It prefers colder climates.

Physical Characteristics
A decidious tree growing to 20m by 10m at a fast rate. It is hardy to zone 1. It is in flower in April, and the seeds ripen from August to September. The scented flowers are monoecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but both sexes can be found on the same plant) and are pollinated by Wind. It is noted for attracting wildlife. We rate it 4 out of 5 for usefulness.

The plant prefers light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and can grow in heavy clay and nutritionally poor soils. The plant prefers acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils and can grow in very acid soil. It cannot grow in the shade. It requires dry moist or wet soil. The plant can tolerates strong winds but not maritime exposure.

Edible Uses
Flowers; Inner bark; Leaves; Sap; Tea.
Inner bark – cooked or dried, ground into a powder then used with cereals for making bread etc. Inner bark is generally only seen as a famine food, used when other forms of starch are not available or are in short supply.

Sap – raw or cooked. A sweet flavour. Harvested in early spring, before the leaves unfurl, by tapping the trunk. The flow is best on sunny days following a heavy frost. The sap is often concentrated into a sugar by boiling off the water. Between 4 and 7 litres can be drawn off a mature tree in a day and this will not kill the tree so long as the tap hole is filled up afterwards[115]. However, prolonged or heavy tapping will kill the tree. A beer can be fermented from the sap. An old English recipe for the beer is as follows:-

“To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirr’d together; then boil it almost an hour with a few Cloves, and a little Limon-peel, keeping it well scumm’d. When it is sufficiently boil’d, and become cold, add to it three or four Spoonfuls of good Ale to make it work…and when the Test begins to settle, bottle it up . . . it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the Appetite, being drunk ante pastum.”[269].

Young leaves – raw or cooked.

Young catkins. No more details are given.

A tea is made from the leaves and another tea is made from the essential oil in the inner bark.

Other Uses
Adhesive; Besom; Charcoal; Compost; Dye; Essential; Fibre; Fungicide; Paper; Pioneer; Polish; Repellent; Tannin; Thatching; Waterproofing; Wood.

The bark is used to make drinking vessels, canoe skins, roofing tiles etc. It is waterproof, durable, tough and resinous. Only the outer bark is removed, this does not kill the tree. It is most easily removed in late spring to early summer. The bark was pressed flat and stored until the following spring. When required for making canoes it would be heated over a fire to make it pliable for shaping to the canoe frame.

A pioneer species, it readily invades old fields, cleared or burnt-over land and creates conditions suitable for other woodland trees to become established. Since it is relatively short-lived and intolerant of shade, it is eventually out-competed by these trees.

A tar-oil is obtained from the white bark in spring. It has fungicidal properties and is also used as an insect repellent. It makes a good shoe polish. Another report says that an essential oil is obtained from the bark and this, called ‘Russian Leather’ has been used as a perfume.

A glue is made from the sap.

Cordage can be made from the fibres of the inner bark. This inner bark can also be separated into thin layers and used as a substitute for oiled paper.

A decoction of the inner bark is used to preserve cordage, it is rich in tannin. The bark contains up to 16% tannin.

A brown dye is obtained from the inner bark.

An oil similar to Wintergreen oil (obtained from Gaultheria procumbens) is obtained from the inner bark. It is used medicinally and also makes a refreshing tea.

The young branches are very flexible and are used to make whisks, besoms etc. They are also used in thatching and to make wattles.

The leaves are a good addition to the compost heap, improving fermentation.

A black paint is obtained from the soot of the plant.

A high quality charcoal is obtained from the bark. It is used by artists, painters etc.

Wood – soft, light, durable. It is used for a wide range of purposes including furniture, tool handles, carving, toys etc. It is a source of charcoal that is used by artists and is also pulped and used for making paper.

Cultivation details
Succeeds in a well-drained light loamy soil in a sunny position. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Tolerates a wet position, succeeding in poorly drained soils. Fairly wind tolerant. Prefers an acid soil.

A very ornamental tree and fast growing, capable of growing 1 metre a year but it is short-lived. It is one of the first trees to colonize open land and it creates a suitable environment for other woodland trees to follow. These trees eventually shade out the birch trees.

Trees take about 15 years from seed to produce their own seed.

Although closely related, it does not usually hybridize with B. pendula. It hybridizes freely with B. pendula according to another report.

A superb tree for encouraging wildlife, it has over 200 associated insect species.

A good plant to grow near the compost heap, aiding the fermentation process. It is also a good companion plant, its root activity working to improve the soil.

Trees are notably susceptible to honey fungus.