In my blog post last week, I told you about aspen. In this post, I’ll tell you about birch – the other white-barked tree that grows throughout the Black Hills.
Because aspen and birch both have white bark, from a distance they look pretty similar. But up close they are very different. One of the easiest ways to tell the difference is by looking at the bark. Birch bark is chalky feeling and peels off in thin wispy layers. The reason for the white color of the bark? It contains betulin, a crystalin substance that makes it pale as well as waterproof. Whereas aspen leaves are heart-shaped, birch leaves are long and oval shaped with coarsely toothed edges.
Another huge difference between birch and aspen is their lifespan. Aspen are thought to be the largest and oldest living organism in the world because trees in an aspen grove are often all interconnected through their root system – they all come from one source. For a tree, birch are short-lived, living only up to 80 years. However, they multiply prolifically. One flower, or catkin, can have 5 ½ million grains of pollen!
The meaning of the Sanskrit name for birch, ‘Bhurt,’ means ‘tree for writing upon’ because the bark flakes and peels off in thin papery curls. Here in the Black Hills area, the Dakota called it tanpa, and in the Lakota dialect it is referred to as canhásan, “white bark tree,” the same name given to sugar maple.
Native American cultures used the tree to make canoes, longhouses and other tools. The Anglo-Saxon and Gallic cultures used birch bark for shelter and clothes, and the buds and leaves for food. Interestingly, they also used the sap to make a beer-like drink! In both the European old world and the new, baby cradles are made from birch bark because the tree is believed to be magical and protect the child.
So, on your next hike or drive through the Black Hills, take some time to stop and look at birch and aspen! They are both very beautiful trees!