The birch has long held an honored place in American life and history. Whether it inspires images of birch-bark canoes, or lets basketball fans thrill to a game played on a birch-wood court, this is a tree of great value and beauty.
Birches are distinguished by their splendid bark. It is often “papery” in texture, leading to the name of one of the best-loved species of birch. The bark is also distinct in color, ranging from white to salmon to purple, an is especially attractive against stark winter backgrounds or the backdrop of evergreen trees. Relatively short-lived trees (from 80 to 140 years) and generally of medium size, birches are emblematic of the northern woods of the United States, though native birches can be found in nearly every state. Fifteen birch species are found, mostly in the nation’s cooler regions.
The Birch’s Place in History
From canoe skins and utensils used by Native Americans to scenes of striking sylvan beauty, the birch has long been loved by Americans. This fascination can be seen in the poetry of two very different ages. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in “The Song of Hiawatha”: “Give me of your bark, O Birch-tree! Of your yellow bark, O birch tree! I a light canoe will build me / That shall float upon the river.” And many years later, Robert Frost was to write in his poem “Birches”: “I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven… One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
Some Common Species
Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is also known as canoe or white birch. Its strikingly white bark is a powerful symbol of America’s northern woods, its vibrant yellow fall leaves a sure sign of autumn. This lovely tree was the choice of early Native Americans for the skins of their canoes. The wood of the paper birch was used for eating utensils and other common tools, and today the wood is prized for high quality lumber and veneer, pulp, and fiberboard products. This hardy tree blankets most of Alaska and extends into the northern states from Washington to Maine and throughout the Lake States, the north central states, New York, and northern Pennsylvania. (Grows in hardiness zones 2 to 7.)
The river birch (Betula nigra) is named for its love of wet places, being native in wet sites from Minnesota and New Hampshire to Florida and Texas. In fact, the natural habitat of river birch extends from the eastern United States as far west as central Oklahoma. This graceful tree is also loved for its bright fall color, its copperish, two-toned bark, and the year-round beauty it brings to any suitable landscape. (Grows in hardiness zones 4 to 9.)