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Trees of the Trolls: Meet the Paper Birch

Biodiversity, Butterflies & Moths, Guardians of the Seeds, Pollinators

Last summer, five giant trolls emerged from the woods at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. These trolls are nature’s protectors—the Guardians of the Seeds. Deep in the forest, they have saved and hidden seeds from ten of Maine’s most important trees. People can only find these saved seeds by visiting all five trolls and collecting their clues–a perfect summer family adventure. Take the time to get friendly with these trolls (and the trees they protect) and you’ll have new friends in the woods for a lifetime.

This week, meet the paper birch, Betula papyrifera.

Today, birch wood is used commercially for pulpwood and plywood as well as in the fabrication of many household items such as toothpicks, clothespins, craft sticks and more. It is also a common (and quick-burning) firewood. In fact, the fallen bark from this tree is useful for starting fires in a pinch.

  • Bark: thin, smooth white chalky bark that peels or hangs off

  • Buds: long tapered buds without hairy scales that are sticky when squeezed

  • Leaves: simple egg-shaped leaves with a short, pointed tip and rounded base and double toothed margin; alternate leaf arrangement; dark green leaves that turn to yellow in the fall

  • Flowers: separate male and female flowers on the same tree; tiny flowers arranged in long, cylindrical clusters called catkins; individual catkins are clustered

  • Fruit: tiny winged nutlets that are released throughout the fall and winter

 
  • Maine Register of Big Trees 2020

  • Location: Moosehead Junction Township

  • Circumference: 97”

  • Height: 85’

  • Crown Spread: 55’

Betula papyrifera, better known as paper birch, white birch, or canoe birch, is a (relatively short-lived) tree that thrives in the rich moist soils of coastal Maine, yet can grow on rocky slopes. As the name implies, the paper birch or white birch has brilliantly white, peeling bark when mature. Saplings and young trees have darker brown, somewhat lenticiled bark. This medium-sized, fast-growing tree can be multi- or single-trunked, reaching up to 80 feet tall. Leaves are green, oval, and doubly serrated, turning golden in the fall. This monoecious tree bears flowers in the form of catkins with male and female clusters blooming in early spring.

Prolific fruit mature in fall. Preferring colder temperatures, this iconic tree spans a range further than any other birch across much of the northern part of the continent and is common across northern regions.

Culturally, environmentally, and economically, this tree is one of the most valuable species in the region. The Wabanaki people perfected the birch bark canoe for the coastal and inland waterways of what we now call Maine. With naturally waterproof bark, it’s also able to withstand extremely cold temperatures, is insect- and rot-resistant, and odorless. The fact that the bark could be sewn, woven, and shaped to fit many needs made paper birch trees a uniquely important resource. Due to its extreme versatility, birch bark was used to make important objects like canoes, snowshoes, and outer coverings for homes, maps and finely etched baskets and containers. Canoes were light enough to be carried with ease but sturdy enough to navigate Maine’s rough shoreline. Birch sap, bark, and gum were also used medicinally to treat several diseases and ailments.

Photo by F.D. Richards

Photo by Paul VanDerWerf

Today, birch wood is used commercially for pulpwood and plywood as well as in the fabrication of many household items such as toothpicks, clothespins, craft sticks and more. It is also a common (and quick-burning) firewood. In fact, the fallen bark from this tree is useful for starting fires in a pinch.

The wood is common in furniture cabinetry making and is highly regarded in woodturning. It is important to know when and how to harvest bark for projects because using too much at the wrong time of year can severely injure a tree. Birch beer (my favorite soda) was historically made with birch syrup. Though sweet birch and yellow birch have a distinct wintergreen flavor, paper birch syrup is higher in sugar and can also be used in tonics. Either way, the best tasting birch beers are made with real birch. Birch syrups are still used today, tapped and processed soon after the more conventional maple syrup season.

Birches are an important browse tree for many of Maine’s mammals like moose, deer, hares, porcupines, and beavers. Paper birch supports hundreds of butterfly and moth species including luna moths, tiger swallowtails, and mourning cloak butterflies.

The mourning cloak, one of the few butterflies that overwinter as adults, often use the peeling bark for shelter when the days get cold. Many of our bird species feed on the seeds. Finches, siskins, juncos, chickadees, and many other charismatic songbirds are attracted to birches both for the seeds they produce and the insects they support.

Birches are one of the preferred trees for yellow-bellied sapsuckers. These birds drill distinct holes in trees, without injuring them, to feed on the rich sap as well as the insects that get caught in the sticky liquid. Other birds use the peeling bark for nest construction.

Photo by Benny Mazur

Photo courtesy of Katmai National Park and Preserve

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Paper birch is a great choice if you’re planting for wildlife. If you do not want (or have space for) a large tree, keep in mind that you can prune them to keep them shrubby, the preferred size for many of our feeding caterpillars. Alternatively, let them grow full sized for the birds and larger species.    

When growing new birches from seed, it is important to collect them while the seed is still green and ripe. Seeds should be sewn in pots in fall and overwintered outside. Cold-stratified seeds tend to germinate better.