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Paper Birch

  • Betula alba L.
  • Betulaceae
  • Birch family

Common Names

herbsCanoe birch
herbsCherry birch
herbsMountain mahogany
herbsPaper birch
herbsSpice birch
herbsSweet birch
herbsWhite birch

Parts Usually Used

Young leaves, inner bark, leaf buds

Description of Plant(s) and Culture

White birch is a tree grows to a height of 65 feet; it has chalky white bark which can be peeled off in horizontal strips. Its leaves are cordate, bright green above and lighter beneath, serrate, and glabrous or minutely hairy. The flowers are borne in yellowish male and gray-green female catkins. When the male catkins turn yellow with pollen, the green female catkins enlarge to produce numerous two-winged seeds, developing into seed cones. Flowers seen in April-May.

Where Found

Found growing in the northern United States, Canada, and the northern part of Europe. Upland woods, often in pure stands, from Labrador to Alaska, near the northern limit for trees, south to North Carolina and Colorado, in mountains in the south of its range.

Medicinal Properties

Astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic

Biochemical Information

Saponins, traces of essential oil, tannin, bitter principle, glycosides

Legends, Myths and Stories

The inner bark contains an oil which is identical in flavor with that of the wintergreen plant (Gaultheria procumbens). A wholesome wintergreen-flavored tea may be made by pouring boiling water or boiling birch sap over diced pieces of the inner birch bark or birch twigs and letting it steep for a few minutes.

According to legend, Christ was beaten with birch rods. The fasces, a bound bundle of birch sticks enclosing an axe with the blade projecting, were carried by Roman soldiers in advance of emperors or important officials. These fasces symbolized the state's power to punish by flogging (the birch sticks) or by putting to death (the axe).

Birch wood has been used for furniture, wooden spoons, tool handles, and broomsticks. Witches on Walpurgis Night were said to have ridden on broomsticks made of birch. Native Americans used the water-resistant birch bark for their canoes and wigwams.

To the people of northern Europe, the birch was a sacred tree. In the Kalevala, a Finnish epic, the birch is designated as a holy tree of great use to mankind. The Germanic peoples dedicated it to their god of thunder, Thor.


The leaf tea is reported to eliminate gravel and dissolve kidney stones when taken daily for a time, 1 to 1 1/2 cups a day. A decoction of the leaves is sometimes recommended for baldness; or try the fresh expressed juice. Mild sedative. Use a wash or bath additive for chronic or severe skin problems. The inner bark contains an oil which is sometimes substituted for wintergreen in liniment. Relieves headaches, menstrual cramps, abdominal cramps, gout, dropsy, acne, eczema, pruritis, rheumatism pains, diarrhea, colic, colitis, and dysentery. The liquid from boiling bark can be used to wash sores and wounds, boils, expels worms. Sap can be taken as a spring tonic or used as a hair tonic.

Beer is often made from the sap of sweet birch. A type of oil of wintergreen is distilled from the inner bark and twigs.

Formulas or Dosages

The leaves must be used fresh.

Infusion: use 1 tbsp. leaves with 1/2 cup water.

Decoction: use 1 tbsp. leaves with 1/2 cup water. Boil briefly, let stand for 2 hours, then add 1/2 tsp. bicarbonate of soda. Take up to 1 cup a day.

Expressed juice: take 1 tsp. at a time, as required.

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