Geography and distribution
Native to North America, paper birch is found from Alaska eastwards across Canada to Quebec and Nova Scotia and southwards to the US states of Washington, Montana, Missouri, New England and New York, at 300–900 m above sea level. There are also isolated populations in Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Dakota and on mountains in Virginia and North Carolina
A tree growing to about 30 m tall, paper birch usually has a single trunk up to 60 cm in diameter. The bark of young trunks and branches is dark reddish-brown, but mature trees have smooth, whitish bark, readily peeling from the trunk in thin, paper-like sheets. The leaves are green or yellow-green with a toothed margin and a pointed tip and are dotted with minute, resin-producing glands. Male flowers are borne on hanging catkins up to 100 mm long; these shed copious pollen in April or May before leaves emerge. Female flowers are borne on hanging catkins up to 50 mm long. Winged fruits ripen from August to September.
Paper birch bark is waterproof as a result of its high oil content. This quality, alongside its flexibility, has led to its use in the construction of canoes, paddles, tepee covers, waterproof wrappings, water vessels and clothing by Native Americans. In the case of canoes, several of the outer layers of the trunk were used to create a more rigid structure than would be possible with just the paper-like outer layer. The sweet inner bark can be eaten or boiled to make a drink. Native Americans and early European colonists used sheets of bark as paper.
The bark is still used in Canada today, where baskets and ‘bark-biting’ artwork are sold to tourists. Bark sheets are also used commercially for handicrafts and floral arrangements.
Paper birch timber is used for turning, shoe-lasts (the solid form around which a shoe is moulded), clothes pegs, toothpicks, ice lolly sticks, broom handles and fuel. Paper birch is also used as a pulp wood, with the pulp being used for the production of paper, paperboard and toilet and facial tissue.
Introduced to Europe in around 1750, paper birch is still cultivated widely as an ornamental in temperate gardens, in particular for its attractive white bark.
Millennium Seed Bank: Saving seeds
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
A collection of Betula papyrifera seeds is held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.
Like most birches, paper birch grows best in a well drained sandy or clay soil where winter water-logging is unlikely. It will succeed on heavier soils, but growth there is slower; the tree is likely to be shorter-lived on the latter. Paper birch does not compete well in shaded woodland situations, so for this reason alone it is best planted in open sunny sites. This positioning will also maximise the effect of the white bark and reduce growth of algae and mosses that would otherwise dull the stems.
This species at Kew
Paper birch can be seen growing near Brentford Gate, near the Bamboo Garden and beside the Lake at Kew.
Paper birch forms a substantial part of the National Plant Collection of Betula species based at Wakehurst. The collection can be found in Bethlehem Wood, near the Millennium Seed Bank, where around 20 specimens of paper birch can be found. There are other specimens in Horsebridge Wood, amongst the North American tree collections, and in the ornamental gardens near the Mansion (in the Oaks, Tony Schilling Asian Heath Garden and in the Water Garden).
Pressed and dried specimens of Betula papyrifera are held in the Herbarium at Kew where they are available to researchers by appointment.
Specimens of the wood and bark of paper birch and water vessels, plates and a box of dominoes made from it, are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are available to researchers by appointment.
Kew at the British Museum - North American Landscape
Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) was one of the 12 star plants featured in the 2012 North American Landscape - the fifth in the series created by Kew for the British Museum’s West Lawn.
North American plants have global ecological and economic importance and have been utilised by native peoples for thousands of years. Many were introduced to Europe following the colonisation of North America in the early 1600s. Grown for their medicinal uses, as food crops and for other economic purposes, some species have also become familiar ornamental garden plants.
The landscape was designed to evolve throughout the seasons - from a carpet of colourful daisies in the summer to spectacular orange and red maple leaves in the autumn. Other plantings included cypress, echinacea and carnivorous pitcher plants.