Herb: Water Birch

Latin name: Betula occidentalis

Family: Betulaceae (Birch Family)

Medicinal use of Water Birch:

The bark is antirheumatic, astringent, lithontripic, salve and sedative. A decoction of the flowers and leaves has been used as an abortifacient.

Description of the plant:


9 m
(30 feet)

Habitat of the herb:

Usually found on the banks of streams or moister spots in forests, it is also occasionally found in drier sites.

Edible parts of Water Birch:

Young leaves and catkins - raw. The buds and twigs are used as a flavouring in stews. Inner bark - raw or cooked. Best in the spring. Inner bark can be dried, ground into a meal and used as a thickener in soups, or be added to flour when making bread, biscuits etc. 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. The sap can be used as a refreshing drink or beer, it can also be concentrated into a syrup by boiling off much of the water. Harvested in spring, the flow is best on a sunny day following a frost. An old English recipe for the beer is as follows:- "To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirr"d 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.".

Other uses of the herb:

An infusion of the plant is used as a hair conditioner and dandruff treatment. The thin outer bark is waterproof and has been used as the cladding on canoes and dwellings, and also to make containers. A brown dye is obtained from the inner bark. Wood - close-grained, soft but strong. Trees do not grow large enough to be of use for lumber, but the wood is used locally for fence posts and is also a good fuel. The bark can be used as a kindling.

Propagation of Water Birch:

Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a light position in a cold frame. Only just cover the seed and place the pot in a sunny position. Spring sown seed should be surface sown in a sunny position in a cold frame. If the germination is poor, raising the temperature by covering the seed with glass can help. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in a cold frame for at least their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. If you have sufficient seed, it can be sown in an outdoor seedbed, either as soon as it is ripe or in the early spring - do not cover the spring sown seed. Grow the plants on in the seedbed for 2 years before planting them out into their permanent positions in the winter.

Cultivation of the herb:

Usually found on the banks of streams or moister spots in forests, it is also occasionally found in drier sites.

Known hazards of Betula occidentalis:

None known

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.