White Birch – Betula papyrifera
Other Names: Paper Birch, Canoe Birch, Silver Birch, tanpa (Dakota), canhásan (Lakota).
Distinctive Characteristics: Paper birch is a medium-sized, single- or multiple-stemmed, deciduous tree with heart-shaped leaves and a tall, thin canopy, most notably distinguished by its bark. Mature bark is variable in color, from bright white to silver to yellowish to reddish-brown. The bark is smooth, with noticeable black marks, scars, and variable lengths of dark, horizontal lenticels (pores providing a pathway for the direct exchange of gases between the internal tissues and atmosphere) that sometimes resemble eyes. The bark flakes and peels easily in fine, paper-like horizontal strips, revealing a pale pink to copper-orange underside. It scars easily, and removing bark by cutting or peeling it from a live tree will kill it. Sapling bark is dark reddish-brown with pale lenticels. The bark is highly weather-resistant; the wood is quick to burn and slow to rot.
Distribution: Native to all Canadian provinces; Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and isolated patches in Illinois, Indiana, Colorado, Oregon, North Carolina, and New Mexico. Elevation: sea level to 10,000 ft. (3,000 m).
Ecosystem: White Birch has a wide range; it is a common species in nearly forty forest types, from boreal to montane and subalpine forests, to rugged mountain slopes, bordering bogs and swamps, and in the northern great plains. It is found in coniferous, deciduous, and mixed woodland communities with Jack Pine, Maple, Beech, Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, Western White Pine, Balsam Fir, White Spruce, Black Spruce, Quaking Aspen, Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce, Poplar, and Larch, but also in pure stands.
Maximum Age: About 150 years.
Maximum Height and Girth: Up to 130 ft. (40 m) in height; up to 18 ft. (5.5 m) in circumference.
Animal Community: Due to its abundance, Birch bark is a winter staple food for moose. Porcupines and beaver also eat the inner bark. White-tailed deer eat the leaves in the fall. Snowshoe hares and rabbits browse Paper Birch seedlings and twigs. Birch seeds are an important food source for voles and shrews, as well as for many winter birds, including American goldfinch, pine siskin, northern junco, blue jay, and the chickadees, redpolls, and sparrows. Ruffed grouse eat the buds and catkins. In spring, Birch flowers attract many insects, which in turn attract large numbers of migrating warblers. Birches can also be important nesting sites for red-tailed hawks and vireos, as well as cavity nesting birds, such as chickadees, nuthatches, swallows, and woodpeckers. Small strands of the bark are the key materials used by vireos in hanging nests, while many other birds and red squirrels use it to line their dens and nests. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers create holes to both drink the sap and attract ants. Hummingbirds drink the sap as well.
Traditional Uses: Ethnobotanically, White Birch is one of the most proliferate tree species that was utilized. The waterproof, lightweight, durable, flexible bark—which could be cut and bent to make virtually any shape—had a wide variety of uses. The bark could be sewn together with fiber and sealed with tree pitch.
Sap: The sap was boiled with spruce pitch to make an ointment for wasp stings or tapped from trees in early spring and taken for colds (Thompson) and coughs.
Bark: Bark powder used to treat diaper rash and other skin rashes (Algonquin, Quebec). An infusion of inner bark was used as an enema (Chippewa). The dried inner bark was ground and added to pitch and grease as an ointment for persistent scabs and rashes. A poultice of outer bark was used to bandage a burn (Woodlands Cree). The bark was also used ritualistically for contraception. A decoction of the bark was taken for internal blood diseases. The inner bark was used as a pain reliever (Shuswap), and a decoction of the inner bark was used to treat dysentery (Menominee).
Branches and wood: A decoction of wood was taken to cause sweating, for back pain, to ensure an adequate supply of milk for breastfeeding, and as a gynecological aid. A decoction of the branch tips was used as a tonic and for teething sickness. The wood was mixed with other materials and used to treat gonorrhea. Burned bark ashes were used to "shrivel the womb" (Iroquois).
Roots: The roots were used as a flavoring for medicines (Ojibwa). The root bark was cooked with maple sugar into syrup to treat stomach cramps.
Food: The sap was drunk as a tea, chewed as a gum, to sweeten medicines, or boiled down and made into syrup (Algonquin). The raw sap, sometimes mixed with fish grease, was used as food (Tanana). The inner bark could be eaten as food in an emergency (Montagnais). Soft, rotten wood was burned to smoke-cure meat and fish (Wood- lands Cree).
Fiber: Thick bark was made into casts or slings (Tanana).
Tools and Objects: The bark was used for making baskets, storage containers, trays, cooking pots, dishes, mats, household utensils, baby carriers, racks for curing hides, torches, moose and bird calls, fishing gear, spears, bows, arrows, and children's toys. The wood was burned as fuel, and the bark was shredded and used as tinder to start campfires.
Art and Ceremony: Shamans contacted the plant spirit of the Birch to heal sick people (Koyukon). The wood was used to make rattles and drums. The bark was crafted into decorative fans. Stencils were made out of the bark to decorate containers. The bark was also used as paper, and drawn on with charcoal.
Shelter: Both the bark and the logs were used to construct wigwams, tipis, and sod-roofed houses.
Transportation: The wood and bark of Birches were used to construct snowshoes, sleds, and canoes up to 24 ft. (7.3 m) long and carrying 50 paddlers (Abenaki, Ojibwe, Huron, Kickapp, Pennacook, , Fox, Sauk, Lenape, Algonquin, Pas- samaquoddy, Micmac, Maliseet, Wabanaki, Cree, Iroquois, Têtes de Boule, Beothuk, Dogrib, Penobscot).
Modern Uses: The sweetener xylitol is made commercially from Birch sap. The wood is used for making furniture, flooring, spools and spindles, popsicle sticks, veneer, plywood, pulpwood, oriented strand board, and woodstove fuel. The sap is boiled down to produce birch syrup.
Threats and Conservation: White Birch is stressed by climate change in its southern range. Although it is not officially listed as threatened, in some U.S. states it is severely imperiled by the bronze birch borer (Agilius anxius).