Trees that lose their leaves in winter (deciduous trees) can be challenging to identify at this time of year. An exception is Gray Birch (Betula popufolia), which in spite of its name, often has bright white bark that stands out distinctively in our winter landscape.
Gray birch is native from Nova Scotia and Ontario to Delaware. It is a fast grower, usually multi-stemmed, reaching 20 to 40 feet in height. In the wild, it tends to develop shoots from the roots and often forms clumps or thickets.
Gray birch is short-lived, lasting for only about twenty-five years. But it will grow in very poor, sterile soils where other trees cannot, even on piles of soil left over from mining or quarrying, or on deserted agricultural land. For these reasons, it has been called “Old Field Birch” and “Poverty Birch”.
In April, gray birches bring a welcome, yellow “spring color” to the landscape by producing dangling little structures called catkins, from which the flowers are borne. In summer, the serrated leaves are a glossy green on top and a pale great underneath, and flutter in the slightest breeze, putting on a little “dance” that can be seen even from a distance. In fall, the leaves turn a bright, clear yellow, and on a sunny day seem to sparkle against a blue sky or a background of evergreen trees.
Year-round, gray birch displays another decorative feature that helps with identification. On gray birch trunks, conspicuous black patches that look like inverted “V’s” extend downward below branches or where branches once grew. You might agree they look a bit like eyebrows.
If you really want to use your imagination, you could picture the trunks of a clump of gray birch in the photo, from Mystic Riverbend Park, as the black and white legs of an imaginary giraffe-like creature, strolling along the Mystic River. For the more down-to-earth, you may just enjoy spotting gray birches if you are out for a winter walk or even driving by along Route 16 near the wind turbine.
– By Aggie Tuden, Medford Tree Warden