The silver birch is a very ornamental tree. A superb tree for encouraging wildlife, it has 229 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 action working to improve the soil.
It is a fast growing tree, increasing by up to 1 metre a year, but is short-lived. It is often one of the first trees to colonize open land and it creates a suitable environment for other woodland trees to follow. These trees eventually out-compete and shade out the birch trees. It makes an excellent nurse tree for seedling trees, though its fine branches can cause damage to nearby trees when blown into them by the wind. Trees take about 15 years from seed to produce their own seed.
The thin outer bark is used to make drinking vessels, canoe skins, roofing tiles, buckets etc. This material was very widely used by various native North American Indian tribes, it is waterproof, durable, tough and resinous. Only the thin outer bark is removed, this does not kill the tree. It is most easily removed in late spring to early summer.
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.
A decoction of the inner bark is used to preserve cordage, it contains up to 16% tannin. 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.
A brown dye is obtained from the inner bark.
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.
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.
Wood - soft, light, durable. It is used for a wide range of purposes including furniture, tool handles, toys and carving. A high quality charcoal is obtained from the bark. It is used by artists, painters etc. The wood is also pulped and used for making paper.
A very easily grown plant, it tolerates most soils including poor ones, sandy soils and heavy clays. It prefers a well-drained loamy soil in a sunny position. It is occasionally found on calcareous soils in the wild but it generally prefers a pH below 6.5, doing well on acid soils. Fairly wind tolerant though it becomes wind shaped when exposed to strong winds.
Seed requires 6 weeks cold stratification.
Only just cover the seed and place the pot in a sunny position. Spring sown seed should be surface sown in a sunny position in a cold frame. If the germination is poor, raising the temperature by covering the seed with glass can help. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in a cold frame for at least their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts.
Inner bark - raw or cooked. Best in the spring. The inner bark can also be dried and ground into a meal and used as a thickener in soups or be added to flour and used in making bread, biscuits 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 warm sunny days following a hard frost. The sap usually runs freely, but the sugar content is lower than in the sugar maples. A pleasant sweet drink, it can also be concentrated into a syrup or sugar by boiling off much of the water. The sap can also be fermented to make birch beer or vinegar.
Very young leaves, shoots and catkins - raw or cooked.
A tea is made from the young leaves and also from the root bark.