“One could do worse that be a swinger of birches.”
So said Robert Frost, who also insisted that he’d “like to go by climbing a birch tree/And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk toward heaven/Till the tree could bear no more, but dipped its top and set me down again/ That would be good both going and coming back.”
The flexibility of birch branches is admirable. Their branches, even those up 30 feet, can hold the weight of snow and even bring small children (and evidently poets) to the ground without breaking! But this is only the beginning when it comes to the luminous qualities of the birch tree.
The most obvious reason for affection is their color. The bright white bark of this tree almost shines among the dull winter colors of the forest. The word, birch, comes from the German root ‘birka’ which literally means white, bright, or to shine. Birch trees also bring yellow to the forest in the fall as their leaves turn color.
The fruit of birch trees is a small delicate samara, a type of fruit with flattened fibrous wings that disperse by blowing in the wind. These fruits play the snow angel game when they fall to the ground and their shape appears as tiny angels in the snow.
Only two varieties of birch shine in our woodlands. The native variety is grey birch, while the other, less commonly seen, non-native variety is paper birch. One lone paper birch stands tall at Felix Neck, most likely planted or possibly an escapee from a domestic tree. These two varieties are easy to differentiate since the paper birch has peeling bark and the grey birch is somewhat less bright.
Both are notorious for their exceptional wood. In the case of paper birch, Native Americans built canoes out of them, and both varieties have wood useful for making housewares such as dishes, boxes, buckets, pots, etcetera. Brooms, too, could be constructed from the twigs of birch. These were used to ‘drive out evil spirits’ and ‘beat the bounds’ of your property to protect it from said bad guys.
Generations of youngsters became familiar with another use of those twig brooms. In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare warned that too-lenient fathers would discover “Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,/ Only to stick it in their children’s sight / For terror, not to use, in time the rod / Becomes more mocked than feared.”
The idea of chasing children around with a birch whip is laughable, but there is a better way to get giggles from the birch tree. One could get drunk from the wine and beer that can be brewed from the sap, or just tap the tree and drink the sweet juice that drips out. Syrup is another sweet option, but smart sweet-tooths rightly prefer the maple tree that gives up much more copious amounts of liquid.
And in a brilliant contradiction, it should be noted that xylitol, a sweetener in many toothpastes which can be extracted from birch bark (and other vegetative) fibers, is known to reduce dental plaque and prevent tooth decay! How sweet it truly is!
And it is definitely worth the trip to find this exceptional tree in the woods. You would be in the good company of Henry David Thoreau if you were to seek out the divine “white lady of the woods.” He wrote that he “frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment” with a birch. That is an engagement that should not be missed.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.