Paper (white) birch

Category: Hardwood
Region: Interior
Title: Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)

Paper birch, also known as white birch, is used for lumber, veneer, plywood and pulpwood, and its smooth uniform texture makes it a popular choice for household items, toys and products such as wooden spoons and toothpicks.

Paper birch is a small to medium-sized deciduous broadleaf tree found throughout the interior of British Columbia. It is easily recognized by thin white to reddish-brown bark that peels in papery strips. Its high-value lumber is used for furniture, cabinets, flooring and other millwork items. Since the wood has no odour or taste, it is ideal for short-use recyclable items such as disposal plates and cutlery.

Where it grows

Paper birch is intolerant of shade, so it thrives in open clearings and younger forests resulting from disturbances such as wildfire and insect infestations. It grows on a variety of soils and is found across most of BC’s interior and in a few scattered places on the coast. It can be an important winter food for many forest animals, including deer and moose, and its litter contributes nutrients to the forest floor.

Identifiable characteristics

Paper birch often has many stems and can be up to 40 metres tall. In forests, the slender trunk often curves before extending to the narrow, oval-shaped crown. In the open, the crown is pyramid shaped. The leaves are triangular, or egg shaped and doubly toothed, dull green on top, paler with a soft down underneath. The bark is thin, white to reddish-brown, with dark horizontal slits (lenticels) that act as pores so gases can pass from internal tissues to the atmosphere. The bark peels in papery strips, exposing reddish-orange inner bark which will gradually turn black with age.
Flowers are either male or female, both are narrow catkins that appear before or at the same time as the leaves. Female catkins are two to four centimetres and stand erect at the tip of the branch. Male catkins are longer and hang below the branch. Each tree produces thousands of wind-dispersed seeds

Common uses and applications

Paper birch is widely used for lumber, veneer, plywood and pulpwood. Furniture, cabinets, flooring and other millwork are made from high-value birch lumber and veneers. The species is a favourite of the wood turning industry for everything from broom handles and dowels to toys and crafts.

Paper birch has a uniform texture, smooth, white appearance, and no odour or taste, making it a good choice for short-use recyclable, biodegradable items such as ice cream sticks, toothpicks and disposable plates and cutlery.

Many indigenous peoples use birch bark for cultural and practical uses such as making baskets, cradles, and canoes.

P’Egp’Ig’Lha Community Centre, Lillooet
Photo credit: Martin Knowles

Commercial availability 

Appearance and millworking grades are produced according to National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) rules. Common grades include Select and better, #1 shop, and frame grade.

Did you know?

Birch sap can be used to make syrup but 80 to 100 litres are needed for one litre of syrup—two to three times as much as sugar maple. Undiluted birch sap can be used to make vinegar or birch beer, and Indigenous people drank the sap as a medicine for colds.