Birch | Betula species

Birch species are small to medium-sized deciduous hardwood trees or shrubs. They are fast-growing, relatively short-lived pioneer species that often invade bare land. The root pattern is a heart root, dividing from the crown into several primary roots. Birch species are in the family Betulaceae, with several valuable species like alders, hazels, and hornbeams. They will withstand considerable wind exposure and can be grown in drier conditions than alders and tolerate areas with periodic inundation. The UK native species Silver Birch (B. pendula) (Heat Zones 7-1), with a weeping habit, and Downy Birch (B. pubescens) are suitable pioneer species. 

Are Birch Trees Edible?

Apart from being magnificent trees for wildlife, B. pendula and B. pubescens also have an extensive range of uses. These include the sap, which can be taken off in the spring and make sweet drinks, beer or vinegar. The inner bark of both species is edible when cooked or dried and ground into a meal, and used as a famine food when other starch forms are unavailable or in short supply. It can be added as a thickener to soups or mixed with flour for making bread and biscuits. The tree sap with a sweet flavour is more palatable and eaten raw or cooked. It is a very diluted sugar solution often concentrated into a syrup by boiling off the water. A mature tree provides four to seven litres per day, with the flow best on sunny days following a frost. Fill the tap hole afterwards to protect the tree. Prolonged or heavy tapping will kill the tree. Use the young birch leaves raw or cooked; they make good tea. Leaves are an excellent addition to the compost heap, helping to improve fermentation. 

The medium to large American native species Yellow Birch (B. alleghaniensis) and Black Birch (B. lenta) grow in light shade, and both have edible sap used as a sweet wintergreen syrup. In the wild, birches often form even-aged stands on sandy, well-drained, acidic soils. Many species tolerate heavy clay and nutritionally poor soils.

Propagation: Seed – needs a long stratification.

Other Uses of Birch | Betula species

• Dynamic Accumulator • Nectary • Coppice • Pioneer • Self-fertile 

In the PFAF database: