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Paper Birches in Winter

by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


February 8, 2004


When I see birches bend to left and right,
Across the lines of straighter, darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them,
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay,
As ice storms do…..

From Birches
by Robert Frost

BirchBarkinWinter.jpg (16262 bytes)For our native paper birch (Betula papyrifera), winter might be its finest hour. The elegant, serrated leaves, once an unremarkable green, fell to earth long ago in a shower of luminous gold. Now there is only that spectacular, peeling bark, shimmering white against steely blue winter skies.
Look closely at a birch trunk and you’ll see hundreds of horizontal lines, called lenticels, which admit air into the bole of the tree. You’ll also see jagged, crescent-shaped scars, the pockmarks left behind by old branches. For the Chippewa Indians, however, the paper birch was once considered sacred and these scars were believed to be “thunderbirds” belonging to their deity, Winabojo.
One of the most widely distributed of North American trees, paper birch is found from Newfoundland and Labrador west to British Columbia and in the south from New York west to South Dakota. It occurs in mixed forests alongside aspens and red maples, often silhouetted against a stand of one of its usual coniferous companions: white cedar, white pine, white spruce or balsam fir. A transitional species, it is dependent on forest fires to create the bare soil on which its winged seeds can germinate and grow. It is short-lived, from 35-60 years at most, and host to a number of insects and diseases, the worst of which is bronze birch borer, a beetle that can quickly kill a tree by girdling the entire trunk.

Freezing Rain is the Birch’s Enemy

Because of the huge number of twigs and twiglets on a paper birch, it is particularly hard-hit during ice storms, when it can collect twice as much ice – and weight – as nearby maples, causing the trunk to snap, or bend completely to the ground.
The peeling white bark is thought to be an adaptation to the cold climate. Because it reflects winter sun rather than absorbs it, it prevents untimely warming of the sap before spring. Once stripped, it does not regenerate, but reveals an inner layer of brown bark, which is sometimes used as an emergency food by wilderness survivalists.
In the history of our continent, perhaps no tree has played a more colourful role. Native Indians (and later French fur traders) stripped the waterproof bark of paper birches, sewed it into sheets using thread made from the roots of swamp-loving tamarack or black spruce trees, then stretched it and lashed it over canoe frames hewn from Eastern white cedar. To keep these lightweight birch bark canoes watertight, they caulked the stitching holes and any sapsucker holes with pine resin or spruce pitch.
A tea was often made from the young leaves and twigs and used to treat acne and rashes. Birch trunks can be tapped for syrup, but not in an amount or quality to rival sugar maple. Numerous birds feed on the seeds of the delicate catkins, and in death, the tree is home to a score of insects, snails and fungi.
Although not a major source of lumber, the wood of the paper birch is used for small fittings and knobs and makes excellent kindling and firewood, even in damp weather. And especially, of course, when winter winds howl.

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