The Black Hills Travel Blog

Aspen & Birch, Part II

By • Jul 21st, 2011 • Category: Discoveries

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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!

About the Author

is is a native of Montana. She grew up a on a cattle ranch in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She attended the University of Montana, spent a semester abroad in Wales and graduated with degrees in photojournalism and art history. Mountains and the West are very important to her. She has traveled worldwide but knows her home is in the American West. She attributes this to her parents spoiling her by letting her grow up horseback riding, back country camping and travel throughout the West. She still enjoys all of these spoils, and loves being able to walk out of her office or house door and go on a hike in the Black Hills without even having to drive to the trailhead.
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