What are Birches?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Birches are trees in the genus Betula, native to the Northern Hemisphere. There are around 40 birch species around the world, most of which are found in lowlands such as river valleys. These trees have a number of economic uses, ranging from materials for cabinetry to food ingredients, and birches are also used in landscaping in some regions of the world.

Most birches are known for their white bark.
Most birches are known for their white bark.

All of the birches look more or less the same, with the key physical difference between birches being the color of their bark and their growth habits. The tallest trees can reach heights of 70 feet (21 meters), and some species known as “weeping birches” grow long branches which bend downwards with age. The leaves of birch trees are simple and serrated, and the bark is very flaky and papery. Some well-known birch species include: red birches, white birches, silver birches, black birches, and yellow birches, all named for the color of their bark.

The bark of birch trees is in fact so paper-like that some cultures have used it for paper. Raw birch bark can be easily and gently removed from trees without damaging them and used for paper, and the bark and wood can also be pulped for the purpose of papermaking. Most birches also have very strong, lightweight wood with a fine grain which is appealing to people in the construction industry, and birchwood is particularly prized for instruments and speakers, thanks to its resonance.

These trees are deciduous, losing their trees in the winter, and they prefer loamy, slightly acidic soil near riverbanks. Birches can thrive in environments where other plants struggle to survive, and they have a tendency to take over if allowed free rein. As long as the trees get enough sunshine and water, they will develop into strong, healthy specimens.

Birch bark has historically been used in teas and tisanes, and birth sap can be brewed into a type of beer. Oil extracted from birches can be used to condition a wide variety of woods, along with leather, and fermented birch leaves were once used to condition sailing equipment in Northern Europe. Several birch species have been bred to create ornamental cultivars with particularly interesting bark or foliage for gardening, and these cultivars are sometimes available through nurseries and garden stores.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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