Feeling birchy

White Birch, Eastern Cedar and White Pine

In the winter, from a distance, trees all tend to blend together in the landscape. The exceptions of course are the evergreens, whose colour stands out against the grays of the rest of the winter forest, and the birches, whose white bark sets them apart. In our area, our forest is predominantly oak and maple, but there are patches of birch here and there. Most of them are Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera, also known as Silver Birch, White Birch or sometimes Canoe Birch. There are 13 species of birch in North America. Several of them have names reflecting the colour of their bark: White, Silver, Red, Gray, Black, Yellow.

White Birch

It’s obvious to see where the name Paper Birch comes from. The bark peels and hangs in broad curls from the trunk of the tree. Virtually all birches have such papery bark, but of the species that occur here in the northeast, only the Paper Birch peels in such a way. The paper curls, compared to the bark of other trees, are extremely resistant to degradation and weathering because of a resinous oil contained within it. This same property also made it ideal for siding watercraft with, and the Native Americans used it often for their traditional birchbark canoes. It’s also used as a building material in many birds’ nests, including vireos; whether they choose it for its waterproofing properties or its pleasant perfume I don’t know…

The name Silver Birch is often used to refer to Betula papyrifera, but the name really belongs to a European species, B. pendula. This is funny, because I remember learning a Canadian folk song as a kid, sung in rounds over campfires, called “Land of the Silver Birch”:

Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver,
Where still the mighty moose wanders at will;
Blue lake and rocky shore,
I will return once more.
Boom-diddy-boom-boom, boom-diddy-boom-boom, Boom-diddy-boom-boom, bo-oo-oom

High on a rocky ledge I’ll build my wigwam,
Close by the water’s edge, silent and still;
Blue lake and rocky shore,
I will return once more.
Boom-diddy-boom-boom, boom-diddy-boom-boom, Boom-diddy-boom-boom, bo-oo-oom

My heart grows sick for thee here in the lowlands,
My heart cries out for thee, hills of the north;
Blue lake and rocky shore,
I will return once more.
Boom-diddy-boom-boom, boom-diddy-boom-boom, Boom-diddy-boom-boom, bo-oo-oom

Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver,
Where still the mighty moose wanders at will;
Blue lake and rocky shore,
I will return once more.
Boom-diddy-boom-boom, boom-diddy-boom-boom, Boom-diddy-boom-boom, bo-oo-oom

Yellow Birch and White Birch

Also in our area are Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis. Their bark shines in the sunlight, and I think they would be more appropriately called Golden Birch. They show the characteristic birch curls, but they’re little, and narrow. You certainly would have trouble siding a canoe with them. Yellow Birch usually grow in damp soils, usually along the sides of creeks or vernal pools. They’re often found in association with Eastern Hemlock, which also prefer the same sort of conditions. Because of their habitat preferences, they’re found more locally and are less abundant than Paper Birch, which favour drier upland forest. Interestingly, apparently the twigs of Yellow Birch will, when scraped, produce a mild scent of wintergreen because of the methyl salicylate oil the tree produces, but I didn’t know this at the time I was out looking at the trees; I will have to check next time I go back.

White Birch and Yellow Birch

Birches tend to be pioneer species; that is, they are the first trees to move in to an area after significant disturbance such as fire or clearcutting. They are often found in stands of relatively even ages as a result, and will also die together as they reach the end of their lifespan. I have found a couple of spots in our forests where it seemed every single birch was dead or rotting, covered in bracket fungi. Paper Birch, and possibly Yellow Birch as well, provide an important food source to many animals that rely on the bark during lean winter months. Moose, in particular, feed heavily on birch bark in the winter, and White-tailed Deer, Snowshoe Hares and Porquepines will all nibble on the bark of trees of various ages. The green leaves are also eaten by deer, but not usually dried leaves. Birch are one of those trees that have marcescent leaves – they retain them through the winter – and one of the hypotheses for this is that it protects the young twigs from browsing by deer.

6256 - Archiearis infans - The Infant

Birches are host to the caterpillars of many species of lepidoptera and the larvae of other insects. One such species is the above, The Infant, Archiearis infans. These moths are daytime fliers and emerge in the early spring, often while there are still patches of snow on the ground. They seek out open, sunny spaces, and are usually found within or near to birch stands – not surprising, given that birch is their host plant. In areas with lots of birch they can be quite plentiful, but even in forests with sparser birch numbers they are still common. While out today I encountered 8 along a 1 km (0.6 mile) stretch of road. It’s possible you may not realize that what you’re looking at is a moth when you see it – often they spring up from the road before you get a good look at them, and in flight they just look like a small, orange, flighty butterfly.

6257 - Leucobrephos brephoides - Scarce Infant

This second one also favours birches as its host plant. It’s the Scarce Infant, Leucobrephos brephoides, related to the first above. As the name implies, this species is significantly less common than The Infant, and despite feeding on a widespread and common tree species, and found across much of northern North America, the moth species itself tends to be localized and rare. I was lucky to discover one along our road, resting in the middle of the dirt surface. I initially mistook it for the orange variety, and it was just sheer luck that I happened to get my butterfly net over it (which I’d taken along with me this walk, since I wanted some photos and it’s tricky to sneak up on these guys).

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12 responses to “Feeling birchy

  1. Hi Seabrooke,

    Are B. papyrifera and B. alleghaniensis the only native birches in your area? We have only B. nigra here in Missouri (not counting dreadfully stressed, bronze birch borer-infested, ornamental plantings of B. pendula).

    Those moths are beautiful – are they catacolines?

    regards–ted

  2. Presumably the deer and moose have sweet wintergreen breath.

  3. We really enjoyed this post, as birches are one of our favorite trees. Especially the yellow birch — that bark is so metallic bronze sometimes that it’s positively mesmerizing! And you’re right about the wintergreen flavor — we’ll often nibble on a yellow birch twig as we walk through the woods, and on some trees the flavour can actually be quite strong. However, the black birch (Betula lenta) is said to be MUCH stronger — we don’t have them in Wisconsin, but you should have them out in your forests.

    We didn’t know The Infant was associated with birches — it’s just that time of the year, so you gave us a great new quest to go on. Thanks!

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  5. Ted – the only birches we have in our area are Yellow and Paper. The range of Gray starts just east of us, but I don’t think they make it this far. I don’t think B. nigra makes it into Canada. There are other species of birch in other parts of the country, though.

    Barefootheart – could be! Who can we get to catch one and check?

    Kenton and Rebecca – I’m glad to have you confirm the wintergreen. We don’t have B. lenta in Ontario except for a tiny population near the border in one location. However, I’ll certainly be checking out the Yellows next time I’m near some. Good luck with the Infants!

  6. I recently got to see some Virginia Roundleaf Birch trees at the Virginia Tech campus. There were so few of these trees left in the wild and they were all confined to a small section in Smyth County, Virginia that they were believed to be extinct for 60 years.

    There are very few trees left in the wild now, but the artificially propagated populations are doing well.

    A lot of the tree’s success has to do with the secrecy of the Forest Service. Early efforts to save the tree were hindered by vandals!

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  8. Ahh! I love the identification description and clues. I recently moved on from my wetland scientist position to be a 3rd grade teacher (not for any less love for the wetlands or the plants I ID-ed, that’s for sure… more for the intense love of spreading my love of nature and all things science with batches of 20 young minds at a time)…. but anyhow, in my “old life” I did a ton of plant ID, since to delineate wetlands, one of the indicators is vegetation. I’ve found that without my daily practice, I’m getting a liiiiiiiittle rusty. This blog will be great to touch up on my skillllls :) Thank you!

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