Tree of the Week | Silver Birch
Silver Birch Tree Identification & Uses | Tree of the Week
Tree of the Week is a series of articles dedicated to individual trees and is designed to give you a short but comprehensive overview of the ID, medicinal uses and any other relevant information. This week we’re taking a looking at the Silver Birch tree identification.
Silver Birch (Betula Pendula) tree identification
First and foremost the botanical name should always be learned, this not only helps with remembering the tree but can also aid with identification. Betula is simple to remember as the tree is part of the Betulaceae family, I remember Pendula as the leaves hang like pendants.
Silver birch has to be one of the most easily recognisable and abundant trees in the British Isles. It is a native species which is found throughout Europe and some parts of Asia and is a member of the Betulaceae family. The only other tree you may confuse it for is Downy Birch (Betula Pubescens), they look very similar and the easiest way to tell the difference is the leaves. Silver birch has hairless leaves whereas Downy Birch have a grey underside and are slightly hairy – a great way to remember the botanical name, hairy = pubescens.
Silver Birch is a deciduous tree which has very distinctive white flakey bark up the trunk, the tree can grow up to 30 metres tall and the leaves are light green (throughout spring & summer), small & triangular with a pointed tip. They have a flat bottom and sharply serrated teeth all around the outer edge of the leaf.
Silver Birch uses
Silver Birch makes a fantastic, reliable tinder for getting a fire going in all weather conditions, the bark contains large amounts of oil and resin. You can either gather the flakey white peeling bark on the outside of the tree, or find a living/dead tree and insert your knife about 1.5mm into the bark and draw your knife across in a horizontal line, you can then peel of a strip of bark and scratch your knife across the outer side to form a pile of dust, this will ignite with a single spark from a ferrocerium rod. Please note that this second method is very damaging to the tree.
As well as being a great tinder source, the wood also burns very well and is probably best used to get a quick fire going with a lot of heat. The wood does burn fairly quickly though, so it would not be my choice for a long slow burning fire, oak would be however.
One of the very best features of this tree is that in early spring you can drain the sap from the tree to enjoy a tasty, refreshing drink. This process is called ‘birch tapping’. There is a very small window of opportunity to tap the tree and that is the first few weeks of March. This is when the tree is pushing all the sap up the trunk in order to produce buds and leaves. You can do this once and cause no real damage to the tree. There are several methods to extract the sap, but the one I like the most is to simple insert your knife at an angle into the tree and hit the butt of the knife hard with your hand to deepen the cut, you will notice that sap starts to run down your knife almost instantly. Remove your knife and insert a small piece of wood with the outer bark removed (hygiene reasons), the sap should start to run down the wood and drip off the end, simply place your water bottle or billy can beneath to collect the sap. You will need to wait a few hours to get a reasonable amount for a drink. The sap has a high nutritional content and is said to even have cancer healing properties (although I do not believe there is proven research to support this). You can drink the sap cold as it is, or boil it up, add some pine needles and have a cup of woodsman tea.
Birch oil (from leaves):
Gather a large amount of young leaves and add them to a jar, fill the jar to the top with olive oil/ vegetable oil and instead of closing the lid, add a breathable fabric such as muslin over the top and secure with an elastic band. leave it for roughly 4 weeks. After 4 weeks, remove the lid and separate the oil from the leaves using muslin cloth or a similar material. The oil can be applied directly to the skin as a massage oil for arthritis, rheumatism, pulled muscles and various other aches and pains.
Birch oil (bark):
Just as we can draw oil from the leaves, we can also draw oil from the bark. Gather a large amount of the external bark from a silver birch tree. Add this into a sealed container and create a hole in the top using a knife (this is to allow the smoke, moisture and other gasses to escape) and a hole in the bottom (this is where our oil will leak through). Place another container (with an open lid) under the hole in the bottom, this will collect the oil. Start a small, controlled fire and build this around your main container. The fire will need to burn for around 2 or 3 hours to extract all the oil from the bark and let it collect in the container.
The collected oil can be used as an insect repellent or applied to your cutting tools to protect from rusting. I believe that our aboriginal ancestors also used birch oil as a glue to set arrow heads on to the arrow shaft. Another great natural glue can be made from pine resin and charcoal, but we will cover this in another article.
Once the oil is left for a while, it will harden, simply move it near to a heat source and it will start to become tacky and pliable, you can then apply it to whatever you need and allow to set hard again.
You can gather the young leaves, dry them out and crumble them. Add the dried leaves to hot water for a healthy tea.
Silver birch leaves contain saponins (natural soap), simply take a handful of young looking leaves, add some water and scrub in between your hands to form a lathery soap.
Silver birch is a great choice of wood for carving spoons and other utensils. Find dead standing wood which is not too hard or soft.
Just as the outer bark can be used as a tinder, it can also be utilised to fashion a waterproof container. You will need some cordage and pitch (pine resin mixed with charcoal) to make this.
Cut a large sheet of outer bark and fold it around itself to form a funnel shape. You can fill the inside with fabric, charcoal, sand, soil, grass & gravel. Pour the turbid water through the top and as the water flows through the various layers, a much clearer liquid will appear through the bottom. This water can then simply be boiled to kill off any remaining bacteria.
As you can see from the above list, Betula Pendula is an incredibly useful tree to learn about. Knowledge is only half the battle, to really solidify this in your mind, go outside and practice any of the above techniques which you are not familiar with and we would love to hear all about your results.
If there are any other uses for silver birch which we have missed, please share these in the comments below! We hope this Silver Birch tree identification article has been useful. For more tree ID, see our Tree of the Week category.