Edible Wild Plants: Yellow Birch (Betula Alleghaniensis)

Yellow Birch (Betula Alleghaniensis)Yellow birch (Betula Alleghaniensis) is the most valuable of the native birches. It is easily recognized by the yellowish-bronze exfoliating bark for which it is named. The inner bark is aromatic and has a flavor of wintergreen. Other names are gray birch, silver birch, and swamp birch. This slow-growing long-lived tree is found with other hardwoods and conifers on moist well-drained soils of the uplands and mountain ravines. It is an important source of hardwood lumber and a good browse plant for deer and moose. Other wildlife feed on the buds and seeds.

Yellow birch is the deciduous tree with ‘cones’ on its bare winter twigs. These ‘cones’ are actually the remains of the upright female catkins that were pollinated by windblown pollen from the drooping male catkins during the previous spring. The seed ripens in late summer and is dispersed by the winter wind landing on the snow. From a chair lift, the broad canopy of yellow birch can be seen growing from the gnarled, old weather-beaten trees clinging to life in harsh weather of the mountains.

Wild Edible Yellow BirchYellow Birch is named for its silvery-yellow, thinly peeling bark that develops with maturity, and was formerly classified as Betula lutea. When found in the open, it may reach 70 feet tall and 50 feet wide as an individual tree. As a member of the Birch Family, it is related to the Alders, Hornbeams, Filberts, and Hophornbeams, in addition to other Birches. It is often found growing alongside Black Birch (with which it is often confused) in forests, and these two species are among the first to colonize fields and roadway cuts.

Yellow birches produce prodigious quantities of seed on a three-year cycle beginning at about 40 years of age. They need this survival technique because the seeds must find perfect soil and climate conditions to germinate and grow. For example, seeds that germinate in leaf litter die when the litter dries out in summer. Young sprouts may freeze if there is an early frost.

Yellow Birch TreeSeeds that sprout on long-lasting moss-covered conifer logs and stumps find optimum growing conditions. Even moss covered rocks will do, or better yet, disturbed areas in the forest where the soil is exposed offers seedlings a better chance of surviving. Look for weird roots structures of mature yellow birch trees. They may grow on and around rocks with a network of roots clinging to the rock until finally finding some soil beneath. A yellow birch that sprouts on a stump may end up growing on a scaffold of roots when the stump finally rots away. Rich, well-drained soil is needed for survival. But even if the seedlings make it through these early survival tests, they are vulnerable to browsing deer who favor the tasty sprouts.

Yellow birch wood is perfect for a variety of interior uses such as beautiful cabinets, paneling, veneer, interior doors and floors. Because of its tight smooth grain, it stains nicely. It is strong and bends well and is used for dowels, spools, handles that are nice and smooth, and is perfect for toothpicks and tongue depressors because it has no taste and no slivers. Because it is dense, it is good for firewood and its bark is great for starting fires even when it’s wet.

Edible Parts

  • Inner bark
  • Sap
  • Twigs
  • Leaves

Uses

Inner bark – cooked or dried and ground into a powder and used with cereals in making bread. 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 flavor. The sap is harvested in early spring, before the leaves unfurl, by tapping the trunk. It flows abundantly, but the sugar content is much lower than maple sap.

A pleasant drink, it can also be concentrated into a syrup or fermented into a beer. An old English recipe for the beer is as follows: “To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirred together; then boil it almost an hour with a few Cloves, and a little Limon-peel, keeping it well scumm’d. When it is sufficiently boil’d, and become cold, add to it three or four Spoonfuls of good Ale to make it work…and when the Test begins to settle, bottle it up; it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the Appetite, being drunk ante pastum.”.

A tea is made from the twigs and leaves. The dried leaves are used according to another report. An excellent flavor. The twigs and leaves have the flavor of wintergreen and can be used as condiments

Medicinal Uses

Yellow birch is little used medicinally, though a decoction of the bark has been used by the native North American Indians as a blood purifier, acting to cleanse the body by its emetic and cathartic properties. The bark is a source of ‘Oil of Wintergreen’. This does have medicinal properties, though it is mainly used as a flavoring in medicines.

Other Uses

The bark is waterproof and has been used by native peoples as the outer skin of canoes, as roofing material on dwellings and to make containers such as buckets, baskets and dishes. Wood – close-grained, very strong, hard, heavy. The wood is too dense to float. An important source of hardwood lumber, it is used for furniture, boxes, tubs of wheels, floors etc.

It is also often used as a fuel.

Where Does Yellow Birch (Betula Alleghaniensis) Grow?

Where Does Yellow Birch (Betula Alleghaniensis) Grow?

How To Identify Yellow Birch (Betula Alleghaniensis)

Yellow Birch Leaf
Leaf

Alternate, simple, ovate, 4 to 6 inches long, pinnately-veined, acute tip, rounded base, doubly serrate margins, somewhat soft or fuzzy, dark green above and paler below.

Yellow Birch Flower
Flower

Monoecious; males are preformed catkins occuring near ends of twig, 1 inch long, reddish green; females are upright 5/8 inches long, reddish green; appear or elongate (males) in the spring.

Yellow Birch Fruit
Fruit

Cone like, 3/4 to 1 1/4 inches long, rather plump, upright, with many hairy scales containing 2-winged nutlets, matures in fall and disperse over winter.

Yellow Birch Twig
Twig

Slender, green-brown and hairy when young, light-brown and smooth later; spur shoots present on older trees; buds are ovoid, sharply pointed, reddish brown with ciliate scale margins. Twigs have a wintergreen smell when broken.

Yellow Birch Bark
Bark

On younger stems shiny bronze (sometimes gray), peeling horizontally in thin, curly, papery strips; older trees develop red-brown scaly plates.

Yellow Birch Tea Video

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