White Birch

Betula Papyrifera

by John Brouwer

White Birch, also known as paper birch, is one of the quintessential Canadian trees. Its range extends from coast to coast across northern Canada. The white bark contrasts with the green pines of the northern boreal forest. Our area is the southern-most part of its natural range. As we are in the transition zone between the Carolinian and northern forest we have tree species from both zones.

White birch grows on open areas and is often the first tree to establish after a fire. It is a short-lived tree, less than 150 years. In the boreal forest it is seceded by the pines.

The classic use of white birch is the birch bark canoe. Invented by the Algonquins, copied by other tribes, used by the voyageurs to service the fur trade, it has now spread worldwide as fiberglass and kevlar models.

The birch canoe usually had a frame of cedar. Birch bark was peeled in large sheets in early spring and sewed together and onto the frame with tamarack root. The bark was applied inside-out and the seams sealed with pine pitch. The mode of transport was completely in tune with its environment. If there was a break down, no tow trucks, diagnostics, or computer codes were required. Just go to the shore, strip some bark, sew it in place, seal with resin from a pine tree and move on.

The birch canoe was made as a small one or two person craft and as much larger freighters. Freighters were 25 – 36 feet in length and could carry three tons with a crew of six, averaging 50 km per day. It was the freighter canoes which supplied the interior and brought back the furs for export.

Native housing used a similar construction. Wood poles made up a frame which was covered with birch bark. For housing, bark was white side out with seams sewed together with tamarack roots and sealed with pine resin.

When bark was peeled into fine layers it could be used for paper. The inner bark was ground up for famine food. Similar to maple, the birch was tapped for its sap, although its sugar content is about 1/3 that of sugar maple.

Natives and subsequently pioneers used birch as a cast for broken bones. When wet the bark can be molded and as it dried became a strong support while the bone mended.

Birch branches were the switches used to compel learning. Birch twigs were the brushes used in the classic brooms. Birch firewood has a high heat value.

Modern forestry uses birch for pulpwood and plywood. Many skateboards have a birch deck. Birch is the tone wood used in acoustic instruments like drums and guitars. The mallets in pianos are often made of birch.

Behind block two, we have one white birch. It was planted by Pauline Richards about 20 years ago. A pretty tree, its ancestry intertwines with over 8000 years of human settlement in this area.

April 2009