Thursday, January 6, 2011

Paper Birch

The white birch is the state tree of New Hampshire. This tree, also known as paper birch and canoe birch (and Betula papyrifera in Latin), is a good choice for many reasons. As the ice sheet melted away from New Hampshire some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, paper birch was one of the first trees to re-colonize the region, after the arrival of spruce and fir. So paper birch is a true native - it's been here a very, very long time.

Paper birch is a generalist, growing on a range of sites from dry to moist, much like some of its woodland companions including red maple, hemlock, and white pine. The bark of paper birch is chalky or creamy white and forms wide papery strips that over time peel off naturally (one should not peel them off but let them fall off on their own accord). As one of the more northern hardwood species it is adapted to our winter climes. The white bark helps reflect the low winter sun, preventing the inner cells from freezing and thawing and preventing frost cracks in the bark.

Paper birch does not live long, as trees go, about 140 years max. At 70 years of age it reaches its tallest height of about 70 feet. Since it is shade intolerant, it fades out when over-topped through natural succession by other hardwoods and conifers. However, if an opening is created in the woods by a tree falling, or a wildfire, or some logging, then paper birch will likely be one of the first to sprout in the new, sunny forest gap.

The peeled bark of paper birch is one of the best fire starters; its logs will burn fast. You can use it as paper or to make a canoe. Moose, deer, and snowshoe hare browse the stems. Pine siskins, chickadees, and redpolls relish the seeds. Ruffed grouse eat birch catkins and buds. Paper birch is a favorite sap source for the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

On our local walkabouts and on our longer hikes in the White Mountains, I often pause to admire the paper birch - for its beauty and adaptability, and for its many uses for people and wildlife.

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