Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera
Did you know that birch bark, in addition to being flexible and handy, has a high oil content, making its surface waxy and water resistant? Can you see why Native people like the Ojibwe have been using the bark of these trees for centuries to make storage containers, canoes, and other vessels?
Chances are you’ve been told that peeling too much of the papery bark can damage the tree, but that doesn’t stop moose and whitetail deer from eating it as a snack! Both the bark and the leaves are important food sources, especially in the lean months of fall and winter.
The paper birch is a well-known tree living almost completely in Canada, with some range in northern Wisconsin, and small populations in other parts of the Midwest and northeastern US. These trees do not tolerate heat and humidity well — rarely does the paper birch live in temperatures higher than 70°F. But a few small populations can be found as far south as Nebraska — perhaps a clue that these places weren’t always as warm as today. Typically, paper birches grow up to 60ft tall, with certain individuals even taller.
As Earth warms, birch trees will have shorter lifespans and disappear from southern edges of their range. Like many plant species, they may not be able to migrate north as fast as warming occurs. Planting more trees can help this species and others to survive. Do you think birch trees will be as numerous in our area at the end of the century? What might this mean for our state’s tourism industry, where this tree is an iconic symbol of the northwoods? Or for Wisconsin’s Native people who still use birch bark in many ways?