WHEN I SEE birches bowed and bent and sometimes broken, they easily evoke the same images penned by Robert Frost in his 59-line poem “Birches.” The birches that he immortalized were bent down “loaded with ice a sunny winter morning … their trunks arching in the woods” and after being bent so long “they never right themselves.”
A living representation of Frost’s poem is what I encountered a few weeks ago when I headed out with the dogs for our usual morning walk across the wooden bridge, behind the swamp, and through the field ending up behind the barn. Our path along the snowmobile trail we had made just for this walk to be possible after the big snow was now blocked by draping birches whose upper small branches were frozen into the snow’s crust, making an ice-covered lacework that seemed impossible to penetrate.
I released one treetop after another from the snow’s firm grasp. They did not whip back to their full and upright position as I had been prepared that they might, perhaps catapulting one of my 15-pound dogs across the field. Instead, they slowly returned to a still-bent position just high enough above the ground that we could pass.
Birches come in several varieties: gray (whose bark has little black triangles); American white (whose bright white bark easily peels in layers); cherry (bark is dark brown and does not peel); red (trunk ragged); and yellow (bark silvery and ragged). All are quite prominent throughout New England.
One thing I had never noticed until I got up close and personal with these birch tops draping across my path are their little brown catkins. “ … the flowers of birches are always in caterpillarlike catkins that become lengthened clusters of small dry fruits,” according to George A. Petrides in his Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Trees. “Seeds and buds,” he says, “are eaten by ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse. Twigs are cropped by moose, deer, and snowshoe hare.”
The American white, or paper birch, seems royalty in our region. In fact, I learned in my tree literature browsing that the white birch is the New Hampshire state tree. How did I not know that? Their white trunks are striking in the landscape. The white birch is also longer lived than the gray birch, whose lifespan is typically less than 50 years.
Just a few days after discovering the thicket of birch canopies blocking the way, I noticed that the clump of seven large birches that had grown on a slight hillside on the way up a little knoll to the gravesite of our property’s early, perhaps first, residents, had collapsed outward, their trunks now resembling spokes on a wooden wagon wheel except for a couple who are being held up by the canopy of surrounding trees. I was sad to discover this. These lovely trees have caught my attention for going on 28 years. On closer inspection, they were a magnificent bunch with significant black striping. Their root system, however, was clearly very compromised and looked almost rotten.
We also have a yellow birch near our pond that has grown considerably in the nearly three decades that we have lived on this land. That tree’s trunk is very shaggy and slightly yellowed. It seems a nice, sturdy little tree although one has to wonder what the effects of it being so close to the pond may have on the stability of its root system.
I stumbled across a book — a pamphlet, really — in the “nature bookshelf” in our living room called “Trees and Shrubs of New Hampshire: A Guidebook for Natural Beauty Projects” put out by UNH’s Cooperative Extension compiled, coincidentally, by Stephen A. Wood. The information presented is interesting and different from what you might find in most tree books since the intent is to provide details about small, medium, and large tree species that help choose what to plant or encourage for, essentially, landscaping.
For the “Native White Birch” or “Paper Birch” (Betula papyrifera), Wood recommends spacing of 25-40 feet although mentions that they are often planted in clumps. The paper birch is accused of being “extremely particular” about its soil requirements, seeking a cool, moist site. The information includes each tree’s pollution tolerance; white birch is “sensitive to sulfur dioxide” but has “good to moderate salt tolerance.” Other features include that it is highly susceptible to drought and to street lighting and intolerant of shade. The paper birch is not recommended as a “street tree.”
The birch is a multi-talented tree. “Birch lumber is of value in cabinetmaking,” says Petrides, and is “also used in the manufacture of agricultural implements, spools, clothespins, etc.”
With all of this, why just 59 lines, Mr. Frost? Why not at least an even 60? It seems like there could be endless more things to say about birches and I am happy to have had inspiration to learn more about these ubiquitous trees that I have taken for granted.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at email@example.com.