Birch species are generally small to medium-size trees or shrubs, mostly of temperate climates. The simple leaves may be toothed or pointed. The fruit is a small samara, although the wings may be obscure in some species. They differ from the alders, in that the female catkins are not woody and disintegrate at maturity, falling apart to release the seeds, unlike the woody cone-like female alder catkins. The bark of all birches is characteristically marked with long horizontal lenticels, and often separates into thin papery plates, especially upon the Paper Birch. It is practically imperishable, due to the resinous oil which it contains. Its decided colour gives the common names gray, white, black, silver and yellow birch to different species.
The buds form early and are full grown by midsummer, all are lateral, no terminal bud is formed; the branch is prolonged by the upper lateral bud. The wood of all the species is close-grained with satiny texture and capable of taking a fine polish; its fuel value is fair.
The leaves of the different species vary but little. All are alternate, doubly serrate, feather-veined, and stipulate. They often appear in pairs, but these pairs are really borne on spur-like two-leaved lateral branches.
Birch is one of the first trees to grow on bare soil and has come to symbolize fertility, healing and rebirth. The tree itself was used for almost everything from canoes to producing sugar and represents that which is needed for everyday living. It is known for its protective healing abilities and is used to drive out evil spirits and as protection from the faery folk.