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Silver Birch - Betula pendula

Silver Birch

Main features

  • Can reach up to 30m tall

  • Fast growing

  • Has almost white layer of fine paper-like outer (dead) bark that peels easily

  • Black diamond-like shapes on the outer bark at first, then black warty bark appears alongside white papery bark in older specimens

  • Has very fine twigs that "weep"

  • Flower in the form of catkins

  • Leaves are triangular-shaped, double-toothed and hairless

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Silver Birch - Betula pendula

Edible tree - novice

Other common names Birch, Warty Birch, European White Birch, Common Birch


Scientific name meaning The genus name Betula has its origins in the Gaulish term "Betu", refers to bitumen. This is believed to be because the Gauls extracted a medicinal tar from the trees. Pendula comes from the Latin "Pendulus", meaning "to hang down", and is a reference to the almost weeping habit of the branches of older specimens

Season All year

Habitat - where will I find it? Although a woodland tree, Silver Birch is often found in ornamental plantings in parks and gardens.

It is a native of Britain, Europe and some parts of Asia. It was introduced to North America, and is considered invasive in some parts of Canada and the United States. 

Description - what does it look like? A fast-growing but short-lived tree, with the exception of Scotland where it lives longer, Silver birch can reach 30m.

It has striking, almost white, thin papery outer (dead) bark skin that can be peeled easily. The bark has small black diamond-shaped flecks, and as the trees ages almost black warty bark bursts through the white layer.

Silver Birch's twigs are very fine and "weep". Its leaves are triangular-shaped, hairless and double-toothed. Flowers are in the form of catkins

Possible lookalikes Other species of Birch could be easily confused with Silver Birch. However, none are toxic and most have the same properties. 

White (Populus alba) and Grey Poplar (Populus canescens) on first glance look similar to Silver Birch. The leaves of the former have maple-like lobes and wavy teeth, and the latter's leaves are almost circular with w wavy-toothed edge, while Silver Birch's leaves are triangular and sharply double-toothed. 

The pale-barked Noble Poplar (Populus x generosa) variants Beaupre and Boelare alos bear a resemblance to Silver Birch, but the leaves have a very shallow wavy-toothed edge. Also, these variants are not yet known to be found outside of trial plantings.

Use as a food The young leaves of Silver Birch can be eaten raw or cooked, but have a slightly bitter taste. A flavour enhanced can also be made from dried and powdered leaves.

The sap of the Silver Birch can be extracted in early spring as it rises to give nourishment to the young yet-to-emerge leaves. Tapping the tree is a common method, but The Foraging Course Company does not recommend this for beginners in case of damaging the tree. Instead, snipping of a 0.5cm thick twig and attaching a plastic bottle with tape is much less likely to do damage, and is our preferred method.

Once collected, the sap can be drank neat as a tonic, or made into syrup, sugar, wine, cordial or beer. 

The inner bark (cambium) can also be used as a foodstuff by cooking, drying and grinding into a form of meal. It can be used to extend flour, or as a thickener. It does not have the best taste though - a food for the zombie apocalypse!

A tea/infusion can be made from the leaves and the inner bark

Use in herbal medicine Silver Birch has been used in many herbal remedies including in the treatment of skin conditions, fevers, rheumatism, gout, dropsy, kidney and bladder stones, and urinary tract infections. It has also been used as a 

diuretic, laxative, astringent, tonic, and germicide 
If you are suffering from any ailment or need medical advice, please see your General Practitioner

Hazards The tar of Silver Birch (see Other Uses) is a skin irritant, and should be avoided by people with a weak heart or kidneys, or those who suffer from oedema

Other uses The Silver Birch is a very useful tree. Its fragile outer (dead) bark skin makes excellent tinder, while its fine twigs provide brilliant kindling. The twigs also make a good sweeping brooms, roof thatching and food whisks.

Its inner bark can be used to make drinking and eating vessels, and is even used to make furniture and canoes. The fibres are used to make cordage.

Its lightweight heartwood is good for carving, and therefore used to make tool handles and children's toys. The wood also produces a high quality artist's charcoal.

A clothing dye with a brown colour can be made from the inner bark, which can also be heated to produce an oil and tar. This oil and tar has been used as a natural superglue for fixing arrow heads, as an ointment for horse hooves, and, as an early form of chewing gum

Importance to other species As a woodland, Silver Birch's airy canopy allow the growth of woodland plants and grasses to grow.

It provides habitat and sustenance for over 300 species of insect, including aphids, which ladybirds feed on. Moth caterpillars, including 

Angle Shades, Buff Tip and Kentish Glory, feed on it, whicle its seeds are eaten by various birds. And, Silver Birch has mycorrhizal relationships with many fungi, such as Fly Agaric, Birch Boletes, Woolly Milk Caps, Chanterelle and Penny Buns. When it dies, it is home to Birch Polypore and Horse Hoof fungus

Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!

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