Yellow birch

Betula Alleghaniensis

by John Brouwer

Most of us can recognize white birch, the classic tree of Canada's north. Yellow birch is related but its bark is yellow-brown and peels in small thin strips rather than the wide strips of white birch. The tree is also known as bronze birch.

The inner bark and twigs have a characteristic wintergreen aroma and these can be steeped in water to provide a wintergreen tea.

Yellow birch is a major component of the hardwood forests of eastern Canada and north-eastern United States. It is the official tree of Quebec as it has been integral to the local economy since the conquest. Its orange-yellow fall colour is dominant in the autumn landscape, its hardwood became furniture and was a critical fuel source.

In Ontario yellow birch grows in moist soils often in the seepage areas along stream banks. Its roots work to stabilize the soils along steep banks. As the seed requires moist and open conditions to germinate and survive, seedlings often develop on old rotting logs. As the log eventually disappears, the tree appears to be growing on stilts as the roots can be two feet above the ground before they join the trunk.

Locally yellow birch is part of the sugar maple, beech, hemlock forest. Trees generally have a life span of 200-300 years, grow to 80-100 feet and up to three feet in diameter. A yellow birch in Algonquin Park has been found to be 610 years old making it the oldest hardwood tree in Ontario. (The oldest living entity in Ontario is a dwarf white cedar on the escarpment dated at 1600 years.)

Yellow birch is a sap tree. For those beer aficionados among us, it is yellow birch sap which is brewed to make birch beer. It is also possible to boil down the sap to make wintergreen syrup although many might consider that to be a waste of good beer.

Yellow birch is a valuable lumber tree. The wood is heavy, close-grained with an even texture and varies from reddish brown to creamy white. It is used for furniture, floors, cabinetry, charcoal, pulp, interior finish, veneer, tool handles, boxes, woodware, and doors. Most of the wood sold as birch in North America is yellow birch, 75% of which comes from Quebec. Because of its high commercial value, landowners are starting to plant yellow birch plantations on abandoned agricultural land.

Winter green oil can be extracted from the bark and twigs which are ground up, boiled in water for 12+ hours after which the liquid is distilled to recover the wintergreen oil. The oil is packaged and sold as wintergreen oil and is used as an astringent in antiseptic ointments for skin diseases and for relief of stiff muscles and joints. It is also used as a flavour agent.

Yellow birch is a browse plant for deer, moose and porcupine. Birds and squirrels feed on the buds and seeds.

Yellow birch makes a good landscape tree but as landscapers tend toward the exotic and imported, yellow birch is seldom available in Ontario nurseries.

There are a few mature yellow birch along the Doreen Thomas trail about ¾ of the way to the sugar bush.

Yellow birch were planted along the drainage ditch behind block two. This spring it was also planted in the seepage area at the norhwest end of the ecological corridor across Pineridge Road. Future generations of Beaver Creekers will be able to enjoy birch beer and wintergreen syrup.
P.S. The prairie roses planted on the old Westmount roadbed did very well this spring and are now in full bloom.

"The dessert shall rejoice and blossom as a rose."

May 2010