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Water Loving Trees - The Birches

( Originally Published 1927 )

Grace and gentility of appearance are attributes-of this most interesting, attractive, and valuable family of trees. Shabby gentility, one may insist, thinking of the untidy, frayed-out edges that adorn the silky outer bark of almost every birch tree in the woods. (See illustration, page 102.) Not one of them, however, but lends a note of cheerfulness to the landscape. There is beauty and daintiness in leaf, flower, and winged seed, and despite the inferiority of most birch wood, the history of the family is a long story of usefulness to the human race.

About thirty species of birches grow in the Northern Hemisphere, ten of them are North American. The white birch of Europe extends across the northern half of Asia, and is cultivated in delicate cut-leaved and weeping forms, as a lawn and park tree in this country.

The Canoe Birch

Betula papyrifera, Marsh.

The canoe birch or paper birch is the noblest member of the family. (See cover of book.) Ernest Thompson Seton calls it "The White Queen of the Woods-the source of food, drink, transport, and lodging to those who dwell in the forest—the most bountiful provider of all the trees." Then he enumerates the sweet syrup yielded by its sap; the meal made by drying and grinding the inner bark; the buds and catkins upon which the partridge feeds; and the outer bark, which is its best gift to primitive man.

"The broad sheets of this vegetable rawhide, ripped off when the weather is warm, and especially when the sap is moving, are tough, light, strong, pliant, absolutely water-proof, almost imperishable in the weather; free from insects, assailable only by fire. It roofs the settler's shack and the forest Indian's wigwam. It supplies cups, pails, pots, pans, spoons, boxes; under its protecting power the matches are safe and dry; split very thin, as is easily done, it is the writing paper of the woods, fiat, light, smooth, waterproof, tinted, and scented; but the crowning glory of the birch is this—it furnishes the indispensable substance for the bark canoe, whose making is the highest industrial exploit of the Indian life."

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from our northern tier of states to the arctic seas, woodsmen, red and white, have found this white-barked tree ready to their hand, their sure defense against death by cold and by starvation. The weather is never so wet but that shreds of birch bark burn merrily to start a campfire, and the timber of the trunk burns readily green or dry.

The White Birch

B. populifolia, Marsh.

The white birch is a small, short-lived tree that grows in swampy ground, its bark chalky white or grayish, with triangular rough patches of black, where branches are or have been. (The canoe birch has a clean bole, chalky white, with none of these ugly black patches.)

A vagabond tree it is, with thin pointed leaves and long pencil-like catkins and seed cones. The chief contributions of the poplar-leaved birch to the well-being of men are that it clothes with beauty the most uniniviting situations, and that it comes again, after fire or other general slaughter, promptly and abundantly, from stump and scattered seed.

The Yellow Birch

B. lutea, Michx.

The yellow birch shows gleams of yellow under every rent in its gray, silky, frayed-out surface. Here is a timber tree of considerable size and value: its hard wood furnishes the frames of northern sledges; the knots and burs make good mallets; the curiously knotted roots show a curly grain, valuable to the cabinet-maker. From New England to Minnesota, and south along the Appalachian range, this tree is found, always telling its name by the color of its shaggy bark.

The Red Birch

B. nigra, Linn.

Red birch or river birch wears its name in its chocolate-hued or terra-cotta bark, whose scaly surface flaunts a series of tattered fringes to the very twig ends. Tall and graceful fountains of living green, these birches lean over stream borders from Minnesota and New York to the Gulf of Mexico, and reach westward to the foothills of the Rockies. Close-grained and strong, the pale brown wood is used for furniture, shoe lasts, and a multitude of wooden-wares. In the bayous of the lower Mississippi, where its roots and the base of the trunk are inundated for half the year, the tree reaches its greatest size. The cones stand erect and shed their heart-shaped, winged seeds in June—an exception to the autumn-fruiting of all other birches.

The Cherry Birch

B. lenta, Linn.

The cherry birch has dark, irregularly checked bark like the wild cherry, but the oval, pointed leaf, the catkin flowers, and the cone fruits of its family. Birch beer is made of its aromatic sap and wintergreen oil is extracted from the leaves. Indians shred the inner bark and dry it in the spring when it is rich in starch and sugar. These shreds, like vermicelli, are boiled with fish and form a nourishing dish. The wood is heavy, hard, and close-grained, valuable for the manufacture of furniture and implements, especially wheel hubs, and for fuel. It is one of the handsomest, most symmetrical, and most luxuriant of all our birch trees, and a worthy addition to any park.

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