Heirloom & Perennial Ltd

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Betula pubescens, White or Downy Birch


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Edible uses

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. However, prolonged or heavy tapping will kill the tree.

A beer can be fermented from the sap. 

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



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