Winter Tree ID: Paper Birch

Photo of Paper Birch bark

Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) grows throughout much of Canada as well as parts of the northern United States, including most of New England. At a distance, Paper Birch may be confused with Gray Birch, but up close the thin, exfoliating sheets of bark give Paper Birch away.

Young trees have reddish-brown bark with light-colored breathing holes, called lenticels. These dark layers of bark are shed with age, revealing pink, tan, or creamy white surfaces. Large trees can appear bright white or dirty gray, but always show dark horizontal lenticels. Male flower catkins, if present, also help to tell this species apart from Gray Birch. Paper Birch catkins are in clusters of 2-5; those of Gray Birch are mostly single or paired.

Paper Birch bark contains highly flammable oil, which makes even wet pieces superb fire-starting material. Sheets of bark can also be made into functional berry baskets and watertight containers. Dead or dying trees may host the medicinal mushrooms Tinder Conk, Chaga, and Birch Polypore.

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