Paper Birches Support Life

The leaf buds on many of the deciduous trees and shrubs in the nursery have been stubbornly clamped shut until recently (a few still are holding out). A couple weeks ago, the Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) trees popped their fragrant orange buds off their newly expanding leaves. The smaller (up to 80’) Paper Birches (Betula papyrifera) are also sprouting their pointed, toothed leaves. BETULAPAPYRIFERA LEAVESPaper Birches are named for their papery, peeling bark that lightens with age until it is white. They tolerate shade and tend to grow on higher ground than the Cottonwoods, though they do fine planted in wet spots and actually provide good erosion-control beside streams and ditches.

A customer recently asked what specific wildlife value Paper Birch has, and I couldn’t answer except in the most general of terms. “Well, uh, yeah, it’s a native tree and, uh, native animals like native trees…” so I did a bit of research.

Planted along streambanks, Paper Birches help moderate temperature extremes that can harm aquatic life. Come autumn, the pretty yellow birch leaves fall into the stream, and along with bits of bark and other detritus sink and decay, becoming nutritious food for organisms at the bottom of the food chain. The overhanging branches harbor insects that fall from the trees and of course seeds provide food for creatures.

Paper Birch’s catkins produce many tiny seeds, food for bird such as grouse, pine siskin and goldfinch (our state bird!). Swallowtail (and other) butterfly larvae feed on the leaves. Birches can be prone to aphid infestations in the spring, but those aphids generally are harmless to an otherwise healthy tree AND provide meals to their natural predators,. Many other insects, including predator and other beneficial insects, call Paper Birch home, ‘inviting’ sapsuckers, warblers and chickadees to lunch.

As the tree ages (they live 60+ years), woodpeckers excavate holes in the trunk that are used by cavity-nesting animals—owls, squirrels, bats, for example. Paper Birch is deer-resistant (supposedly: just claiming deer-resistance inspires deer to take a liking to whatever they usually turn up their noses at). But indeed, the deer that browse the nursery leave the Paper Birch alone. Knock on wood.

Planting natives like Paper Birch supports life—wild and tame, natural and cultivated, owned and un-ownable.

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