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Betula

Betula pendula - European white birch, silver birch

Betula pendula ©Susanna

 

Voted Finland’s national tree in 1988, the silver birch has a special position in the Finnish landscape owing to its pale greenness and in winter to its graphically sharp silhouette. It is also a part of the Finnish mindscape: the story “The birch and the star” by Topelius is familiar to most Finns, and local drama groups and summer festivals typically use silver birch as part of the scenery.

Silver birch is versatile in its uses: birch sap, bark, birch tar, wood for axe handles and as firewood have all been important. Leafy twigs were collected and tied in bundles for winter fodder for sheep and other animals, and the birch whisk is traditional in saunas, for both physical and spiritual purification.

In earlier times the traditional slash-and-burn method of farming helped the spread of birch woodland. Silver birch is a pioneer species which appears quickly in dense thickets after the ground has been broken during clear felling or by fire, and the areas burned over in slash-and-burn were quickly occupied after being abandoned as fields.

In open areas the silver birch is a large broad-crowned tree whose bark is white at first, but with age the butt of the tree darkens and becomes fissured. Some individuals develop drooping branches many metres long after they have ceased growing in height. The species is easily recognised, especially when younger, by the roughness of the twig bark due to resin glands on the surface; and the diamond shape of the leaves is another tip. In earlier times it was a popular garden tree and nowadays nurseries offer a wide range of forms and varieties.

 

Betula papyrifera - paper birch, canoe birch, white birch

The paper birch is the North American equivalent of the Finnish downy birch (B. pubescens), growing in both mono-specific and mixed forests up to the timberline in the north. Though closely resembling the downy birch in appearance, it is of less refined habit, with larger and more oval leaves. The name comes from the pale bark which exfoliates in papery sheets and rolls up like papyrus scrolls. The shade of the bark varies depending on origin, and those favoured for planting have white, unblemished bark.

In Finland the species is hardy at least as far north as Oulu and is occasionally found in old parks. There seems to be some variation in hardiness, just as in habit and shade of bark, again depending on provenance.

The Native Americans used paper birch in many ways, including for making canoes from the water-proof bark.

 

Betula neoalaskana - Alaska paper birch

 

A close relative of the European white (also called silver) birch (B. pendula), this small tree is native to Alaska and elsewhere in the American North-West. It closely resembles the paper birch (B. papyrifera), hence the common name. However, the Alaskan species differs in the way the bark peels off, in narrow strips rather than large sheets. The bark is faintly creamy or reddish white, with grey patterning. The shoots are covered with resin-producing glands, whence the old species name B. resinifera. The leaves are typical of the birches, varying in autumn colour from yellow to red-orange.

In its native habitat the Alaska paper birch grows at the forest edge or on peatlands either as single species forest or together with black spruce (Picea mariana), in Canada also with white spruce (Picea glauca) on drier ground. The trees planted along the road at Mustila’s northern edge have grown well for decades. However, they are so similar to the native Finnish species that few visitors even notice them.

 

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