Dead White Birch Tree Still Gives

By Ann Beebe

The top of my dead white birch tree toppled over. The cause was rotting. Folks also call this tree “canoe birch” and “silver birch.” The official name is “paper birch,” Betula papyrifera.

It is very sad that this tree might stop feeding the birds and mammals in my yard. But wait. Even though it’s dead, it will continue to give to critters. Its buds had provided food for ruffed grouse, finches and sparrows. Now, rodents will enjoy dining on it, and rabbits will consume the bark. There are always rabbit tracts in the snow at my house. The white-tailed deer could indulge on the twigs. They mostly sneak in after dark. Their fresh tracks are visible in the morning.

In elementary school, you might have learned that the Native Americans used the paper birch for canoes, wigwams and utensils. They found the wood to be light, strong and hard, with close spaces between the grains. You might be surprised that they made drinking cups and cooking containers from the wood. The waterproof bark was good for those. Other utensils included turned items like spools and toothpicks.

Of course, after the bark was removed for the utensils, the wood was fuel for warmth and cooking. The bark is also inflammable, which enabled them to heat that water over the fire. There you have it. One more thing. The sap provided a delicious drink. Maple trees weren’t the only ones that provided sugary sap to drink. Of course, I bet sugar candy boiled down from the sap was probably popular, especially with the children.

Winter identification can be challenging for the paper birch. The most obvious way is the white, fairly smooth bark. Here’s the glitch, though. Old trunks become blacker and have grooves. The white birch tree has fat twigs that are smooth and orangey-brown. They also have big lenticels. Those are pores through which gases pass in and out of the tree.

Where would you find this native tree? Look for it along stream banks, lake shores and moist hill slopes. Its range is from Labrador to Alaska, the Great Lakes west to the Rocky Mountains and Washington state, and south to the northern counties of Pennsylvania.

Another birch species in our area is the gray birch. It’s also known as “old field,” “white,” “poverty,” and “poplar birch.” Let’s discuss the differences of these two local birches. Beavers might use the gray birch for building their houses and dams, but they do not care for the bark as food.

Folks used this tree’s wood for most of the same reasons as they did with that of the white birch tree. However, the wood is too soft and weak to be useful for building boats and homes. On the other hand, that softness allowed them to make barrel hoops. I wonder if the wineries around here use hoops made from these trees. I really don’t know. I haven’t toured a winery in many years.

When comparing the gray birch’s winter appearance with that of the paper birch, the bark should be analyzed. Only at the base of the gray birch tree is the bark nearly black, and it has uneven crevices – not grooves as in the white birch. The twigs are skinnier, reddish to orange-brown, and can have a gray covering. Maybe that’s where it gets its name.

Look for it by stream banks or pond and lake shores. It also is common on sandy upland areas. It will fill in fields that aren’t planted by farmers or burned woodlands. In the summer, the leaves would remind one of the trembling aspen and poplar leaves. That’s why one of its names is “poplar birch.”

I am wishing that you take a hike in local parks with woods to see if you can identify these trees. Good tree hunting to you.