Betula papyrifera, or the paper birch tree, is a North American native that is a popular part of the natural landscape. It is commonly found in parks and recreation areas as well as residential landscapes in the northern United States and is well adapted to cool weather and wet conditions. These trees prefer sunny areas and loamy acidic soil but will tolerate a range of settings. Birch is a historically rich tree with uses stemming back to Native American medicine and river crafts. But the use of the birch tree and its many byproducts surpasses Native American lore; it's widely used in commercial wood products as well.
Birch is often planted as an ornamental tree, with distinctive white bark that peels off in thin paper-like sheets. The birch tree also features simple oval-shaped leaves that are dark green but turn yellow in the fall, along with small non-showy flowers. These deciduous trees grow between 50 and 70 feet tall and are often found in USDA hardiness zones 2 through 7.
Paper birch contains a viable source of sap that can be tapped similar to maple trees. Sweet and similar in consistency to maple syrup, the sap is used as a sweetener for beverages such as birch beer--a nonalcoholic soda that resembles root beer in taste and color--teas and medicines. The sap also is often used to make traditional beer, a variety of wines and medicinal tonics, mainly as a cough suppressant.
According to Purdue University, the white birch is one of three birch varieties that are used commercially because the wood is malleable and easy to stain or finish. Furniture, cabinets and millwork, specifically interior doors and flooring, are commonly made from birch because the wood does not have a showy grain.
Native Americans were avid users of the birch tree for the bark that peals off easily. The paper-like thinness makes birch an easy product for starting fires, and its malleability allows for many different applications. But the most common use for birch tree in Native American culture was as a wood for canoes; it's lightweight and creates a water-tight vessel.