Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)

North of Carver Gym (many elsewhere on campus) Map

Striking white bark that flakes in horizontal strips. Also known as the Canoe birch, this tree should be familiar to anyone reared on Fenimore Cooper novels, or whoever indulged his or her curiosity about the early fur trade. Eastern paper birches have beautiful exfoliating white bark, from which seemingly flimsy material were built canoes proof against long river journeys, portages, and the occasional nasty rapid. Our campus paper birches peel in small pieces; constructing a substantial canoe from such scraps would be a challenge.

The problem seems to be that Betula papyrifera is a very widespread tree geographically, and has a tendency toward "plastic genes" (meaning, I presume, that it readily changes its characteristics to accommodate differing environments.) The natural range of the paper birch extends from the Appalachians, across Canada into Alaska, and southward to Washington, Montana, and other isolated Cordilleran outliers. Throughout its range its characteristics vary systematically; so much so, that botanists recognized a half-dozen regional sub-species. Ours may be Betula papyrifera var. commutata, the western paper birch proper. However, there is also a variety called subcordata, the so-called "northwestern paper birch". One characteristic of commutata, according to several authorities, is that it has brownish bark when young. However, who knows? As always, let's leave taxonomic squabbles to the botanists.

Paper birch trees grow quickly and expire early - they rarely attain an age of much more than 100 years. Some reach a height of 100 ft., but the further north you go, the shorter they are. They provide excellent firewood, wood pulp - and are used for making toothpicks and lollypop sticks! And, of course, canoes.