Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Paper Birch
Nature Bulletin No. 462-A    September 16, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE PAPER BIRCH
When we speak of a birch, most of us in Cook County are thinking of a small or medium-size tree with milk-white bark -- a slim graceful and very ornamental "lady of the forest". Singly or in clumps, we see it in parks, cemeteries and landscape plantings. That may be our native White Birch or it may be the European kind distinguished by its drooping branches.

Of 30 or more species of birches found only in the northern hemisphere, 12 are native in North America and 3 of those are dwarfs such as the one upon which caribou and reindeer browse in Alaska. Of the 9 which become trees, only two are native in Illinois: the white birch, better known as the Paper or Canoe Birch, and, a southern species, the River or Red Birch.

Of them all, the paper birch is most widely distributed, ranging from Labrador to Alaska and south to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, the Rocky Mountain states and Oregon. Originally, there was a colony of them in our Rogers Park neighborhood, some in Lake county, and some in the northwestern part of Illinois. There are still some in the Indiana Dunes region.

Canada has vast forests of paper birch. Further, because it produces great quantities of seeds which are wind-blown, this tree and the poplar have reforested the openings created by logging operations and fires. The paper birch now covers far more area than it did when Columbus discovered America.

Birches have slender twigs, usually zigzag; leaves with saw-toothed margins; male and female flowers borne by separate catkins on the same tree. They produce small cones containing great numbers of tiny winged seeds. These are eaten by birds, the buds are winter food for grouse: deer browse upon the twigs.

To the Indian tribes in all of Canada and around the Great Lakes, the paper birch was as important as the coconut palm is to the South Sea Islanders. The culture of the canoe Indians was based upon the birch, just as the culture of the Sioux and other Great Plains Indians was based upon the bison.

Although it is used extensively in the making of paper pulp, our name for this tree came from the fact that the lustrous white outer bark on young trees, and the branches of older ones, peels easily in paper-thin layers like parchment. On old trees -- 2 or 3 feet in diameter and 60 or 80 feet tall -- the bark may be removed in long sheets. Being resinous and virtually waterproof, it remains intact on a fallen tree long after the wood inside has crumbled to dust.

The Indian called this birch the "wigwam tree". He used sheets of its bark as covering for his home and his means of travel -- his wigwam and his canoe. He used it to make all sorts of baskets, buckets, mokuks, trays and other utensils for gathering, cooking and storing his food such as berries, maple sugar, fish, meat, pemmican and wild rice. He used it to kindle fires and for torches. His moose caller was made of birch bark. The records of his tribe and its rituals were kept on white sheets of birch bark parchment.

In the dictionary, the verb "to birch" is a synonym for " to flog". In colonial times, some schoolmasters whipped their pupils with birch switches or bundles of them; Others got to the bottom of things with hazel whips. The result was just the same -- painful.


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