Widely cultivated as landscape trees in the northern regions of the globe, birches have attractive, peeling bark that once was used to make writing paper. But the 30-plus Betula species—native to Europe, Asia, and North America—are much more than ornamental. In North America alone, Native American people used birches for many purposes, including canoe making, basketry, dishes, dyes, and medicines. These handsome trees are still valuable sources of medicine, lumber, and more.
Common Name: Birch
Description: Fast-growing trees, up to 90 feet tall; alternate, ovate leaves with serrated edges; tiny flowers borne on catkins, followed by tiny winged “nuts”; papery black or white bark
Hardiness: To Zone 2 or 3
Flowering: Summer and fall
Parts Used: Leaves, bark, twigs, and sap
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, Asia, and North America
Birch bark and twigs have a pleasant, wintergreen-like flavor. The bark and sap of sweet birch (Betula lenta), which is native to the eastern United States and Canada, can be boiled, sweetened, and fermented to make birch beer.
Birch oils, distilled from the trees’ buds, leaves, and twigs, are rich in methyl salicylate, a pain reliever (and the main ingredient in aspirin) that does not irritate the stomach. Salicylate staves off your body’s production of prostaglandins associated with fever and the inflammation of muscles, bones, and connective tissues caused by injuries or arthritis. Birch oil is also used topically in creams and ointments to treat eczema and psoriasis. Birch bark contains phytochemicals that may have astringent, diuretic, antiviral, and antitumor properties.
Birch trees—including the European birch (B. pendula), as well as native American species such as sweet birch, paper birch (Betula papyrifera), and river birch (B. nigra)—are favorite landscape specimens, valued for their interesting bark and bright yellow fall foliage.
An extract of white birch (Betula alba) is used in cosmetics and to scent soaps, shampoos, and other products, as well as to flavor candy.
How to grow it
Birch trees do best in well-drained, sandy or loamy acidic soil and full sun. Prune in summer or fall to avoid excessive “bleeding” (loss of sap), which can occur with late winter and early spring pruning. Harvest leaf buds, young leaves, and twigs in spring. Propagate by planting seeds on the surface of a moistened seed-starting mix. (The seeds need light to germinate.) Mist frequently until germination occurs, in 2 to 3 weeks.