Yellow Birch: An Old NY Native That Tastes Like Root Beer

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Birch bark peels away as the trunk expands. Daniel Waldhorn/DEC

VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — What really distinguishes the Yellow Birch is its bark. It’s a deep bronze or golden color that starts smooth and shiny, then peels in thin, papery strips as the tree matures and the trunk grows wider, giving a rough, shredded appearance.

Other birches shred like this, too.

“River birch will have a similar golden bronze color, but it shreds away in much thicker strips. It’s also a much smaller tree that usually grows in a clump of three or four,” explained Daniel Waldhorn of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Paper Birch will also shred in thin strips like the Yellow Birch but is bright white.

The lower layer of the bark contains a compound that tastes and smells like wintergreen or root beer. Twigs from smaller trees can be snapped off and chewed up for a tasty treat on the hiking trail.

Daniel Waldhorn (DEC) stands near a Yellow Birch. Sarah Gager/WSKG

Birches can be tapped like maple trees, but birch sap has a much lower sugar content.

“For maple syrup, you usually have to boil 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup,” Waldhorn said. “You have to boil a hundred gallons of birch sap to produce one gallon of birch syrup.” It yields less syrup, but more cash. Birch syrup is five times more expensive than maple syrup.

This Yellow Birch likely started on a decomposing log that has since completely rotted away. Daniel Waldhorn/DEC

Birch wood is sought by carpenters. The USDA describes the wood as “heavy, strong, close-grained, even-textured, and shows a wide color
variation, from reddish brown to creamy white.”

Some species of birch are known as pioneer species, meaning they’re often the first trees to grow in open land to convert it back into forest. The Yellow Birch is known as mid-succession trees meaning they come in after the forest is established.

The Yellow Birch seedlings can easily dry out. They like to get their start on mossy rocks or decomposing logs. The birch grows up as the log rots away.

“So, sometimes you’ll see them sort of on stilts, and they’re sort of on these scaffolding of roots that once surrounded a log that’s now decomposed,” added Waldhorn. The Yellow Birch will long outlive that log. Living up to 300 years, it’s one of the longest-living birches.