Friday, May 6, 2011

Gray Birch

Gray Birch, Old Field Birch, White Birch, Poverty Birch, Poplar Birch. Lots of names for the popular and lovely Betula populifolia that grows sparsely around the lake.

From "Native Trees of Rhode Island":

"The gray, or small white, birch, is a small tree, but makes up incumber, where it takes full possession of the ground, what it lacks in size. It will thrive upon the very poorest of ground, hence its association with poverty. A gray birch plantation makes wood rapidly during a growth of about twenty years, when it should be cut off for a new growth, which starts with great vigor from the old roots.

The characteristics of this species are so marked as to make it stand quite alone in its aspects. It has a small body, rarely over six inches in diameter, and is thickly set with short, bushy branches, finely divided at the extremities. The tree, when alive, is exceedingly tough and elastic. In ice-storms it often makes a complete curve to the ground, as it appears in sparkling jewels of light. As the ice melts away, it again becomes upright. Few scenes in nature show such enchanting beauty as a birch woods in the morning sunlight after an ice-storm.

"The leaves of this tree have prominent marks. They are upon long, slender stems, are much expanded at the base, and taper to a long, narrow point. The margins are irregularly and sharply toothed, and both sides are shining, the upper side very noticeably so. Even in a gentle breeze the leaves quiver, aspen-like, throwing oft an attractive emerald play of light. In the autumn the leaves fall early, after turning to delicate shades of yellow.

"The bark of this birch gives the name "gray"; it shades from white into this color. It is so impervious to moisture that a stick of the wood, if not split open, will decay before the sap can escape. In the woods we often see the form of a fallen tree or limb perfect, the bark sound, while the wood inside has turned to dust.

"The wood makes a good fuel, excellent for kindling, if split and properly seasoned, or dried. The young birches are in constant demand for hoops for casks, and when large enough they are much used for poles for beans and hops, these plants clinging to this wood, with the bark on, better than to any other. Thus the "thinning" of a gray birch lot yields profit, and after fifteen years' growth the wood gives a good return of fuel.

"The fact should be noted about this species that it has important uses in the economy of nature. In good ground stronger trees overtop it and crowd it out. But its seeds go everywhere, and upon the sterile sand plains, upon worn-out lands, in deserted gravel pits, by the scarred and neglected road-sides, it takes quiet possession of the ground. In such places it draws sustenance, largely through its leaves, which, in a few years, develops the trees into sources of profit and beauty. Thus they redeem poor soils, and often act as "nurses" to more valuable trees which finally spring up among them."

Russell, Levi Ward. Native trees of Rhode Island: A study for school and home. Boston, 1891. 30-1. Web. Google Book Search. 6 May 2011.


  1. I love birches-all of them and here's a new one for my collection. It sounds like the perfect tree to grow-beautiful, useful, good natured.

  2. There are large stands of gray birch further west in Massachusetts that I admire, along the highway on my way to work meetings. Beautiful throughout all seasons...