Today I marvel at the magical winter wonderland and absorb the beauty I see. I think of how devoid my world would be without the trees that grace my landscape. This morning everything is coated with a thick white layer of whip cream. The clouds have dispersed to give way to an intense robin's-egg-blue sky. It is an exquisite sight to behold.
On days when there is not a confectionery coating on the trees and shrubs there is a beautiful tree that sports a white coat year around. It is the tree that Robert Frost dedicated the above poem to.
Numerous species of birch are found throughout the United States. Several are native and many have been introduced from Europe and Asia. Minnesota has three endemic species: paper, river and yellow.
"So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches." -- Robert Frost
The most abundant, except in southwestern Minnesota, is the paper birch (Betula papyrifera), also known as canoe or white birch. The paper birch has a larger trunk with fewer markings than most of its European counterparts, and consequently is named for this characteristic. It thrives in geographic regions where a climate of short cool summers and long cold winters with extended periods of snow on the ground prevails. This species is intolerant of shade and often found with aspen, jack pine, balsam fir and white spruce.
Years ago I was privileged to watch Bill Hafemann craft a canoe of paper birch and spruce roots. It was fascinating to learn his harvesting techniques and to witness a man near 80 lovingly create a piece of art with gnarled and aging hands.
The river or red birch (Betula nigra), identified by its slender branches and torn rugged bark, grows along rich bottomlands. I have seen the bark color vary from light cinnamon to nearly solid russet. This graceful, moisture-loving tree is native to southern Minnesota, especially in the valleys of the Mississippi and Root Rivers and near Mankato. Because river birch is scattered in its distribution and predominantly confined to stream banks, it isn't used to any great extent in commercial lumbering. However, where it is available it is used for fuel.
Yellow birch (Betula lutea), with its straw-colored bark, is common in the northern half of the state. It needs better soil than the paper birch and thrives where cool, moist conditions prevail. Veneers and furniture are made from yellow birch. Being unisexual, the male and female flowers are found on the same tree. The fruits are minute nuts borne in what appears to be a catkin.
When compared to other trees, birches are short-lived. While many people choose them for ornamental trees they will not thrive unless the yard is similar to the cool, moist conditions of the riverbanks and woods where they flourish naturally. Birches are difficult to successfully transplant, especially from the wild. If you're interested in adding birch trees to your home landscape and you have hospitable conditions for these trees I would recommend checking out the stock readily available through local nurseries.
In addition to paper and river birch there is a variety called Heritage River birch that features lighter colored bark. Another offering is the cutleaf weeping birch (Betula alba 'Gracilis'). Though susceptible to borers, it's a lovely, narrow tree of pure white bark and weeping form. It tolerates dry winds better than other birches. The Whitespire Japanese birch (Betula platyphylla jamponica 'Whitespire') with its smaller upright stature and pure white bark is also sold in some Minnesota nurseries.
Since birches are persistent "bleeders," pruning is best done at almost any time of the year except in the spring when the sap is running. Personally, I've never felt a need to prune a birch, believing that its natural form is best and most beautiful.
Birch wood is hard, strong and lightweight and is used for flooring, interior finish wood, snowshoe frames, handles, paper pulp, spools, shoe lasts, toothpicks and toys in addition to being a popular, efficient firewood.
Northern woodland Indians used birch in many ways. Several tribes used the sheets of bark to make wigwams. The Ojibwe, in particular, were skilled builders of birch bark canoes. Smaller pieces of bark are still used to make baskets, cups, bags, containers and household utensils of all types. In times past the Dakota tribe, which calls the birch "ta pa," bound fine shredded bark into bundles to use for torches.
Birch flour is made by grinding the inner bark into a powder and tea may be steeped from the young bark and leaves. The sap may be served as a drink and when boiled down, makes sugary syrup. "Birch beer" is brewed by fermenting the sap. One of the sources of oil of wintergreen is the bark of the yellow birch.
For me the birch simply is a source of aesthetic pleasure. In all seasons -- be its fresh green and white of spring, its rustling leaves of summer winds, its golden splendor of autumn or its barren winter beauty -- its elegance prevails.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.