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Paper Birch

I have been doing some cross-country skiing in the Turtle Mountains this winter. And even up to as recently as a few weeks ago I would occasionally see a considerable amount of paper birch seeds blown onto the snowy surface. With the recent warmer conditions, the snow surface has become an icy crust. With a little help from the wind, I suspect these seeds could go for some good long rides to perhaps colonize suitable habitat in which to grow.

Most everyone is familiar with this interesting tree. The scientific name Betula papyrifera, basically translates “birch” and “paper,” an obvious reference to the bright paper-white bark that characteristically peels outward in places.

Paper birch is a native to the temperate regions in North America with short cool summers and long, cold, snowy winters. As such its native range is much of Alaska, Canada, the Great Lakes and New England states, northern Rockies, and some northern tier states. Here in North Dakota it is common in the Turtle Mountains, Pembina Hills, and Killdeer Mountains, but less so in other areas of the state.

Paper birch is considered to be a short lived, shade intolerant, early successional species. As such it is often abundant in burned-over and cut-over areas. In older forests it is more restricted to openings in the forest canopy, such as that caused by blowdowns or patchy fires and the like. It is a sprouter which makes it well adapted to occasional fires as does its prolific production of seed. Paper birch does not handle dry soil well, so in the Turtle Mountains it is particularly abundant on north or northeast facing slopes where soil moisture and humidity are higher.

Some of you may have noticed that paper birch branches are being used in home decorating items such as in planters, candle holders, and the like. The source of that birch may be suspect. A couple years ago the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an article about the theft of paper birch in northern Minnesota. Apparently, the market for birch branches is high enough that some people are sneaking onto both public and private land in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin to cut and sell the birch. So if you are considering purchasing some birch branches for decorative items in your home, you might want to pass it up.

-Chuck Lura

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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