The Betula papyrifera from the Betulaceae family (also called White Birch or Canoe Birch)
was one of the few trees that really caught my eye when I was a young boy. Arriving in
Canada at the age of 7 from Tunisia, this tree, more than any other, was visually fascinating.
Its leaning trunk, peeling bark, and, most importantly its bright chalky whiteness, stood in stark
contrast to the predominant maples, oaks, pines, spruces and firs located on the north side of
the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.
In Quebec’s cultural folklore, there is the legend of the flying canoe, made of birch, that soars
over the mountains to reunite separated lovers. Interestingly, the Laurentian Mountains located
north of the St. Lawrence River are the oldest mountain range in the world, dating back 5
billion years. They were once high altitude mountains and are now for the most part less than
3000 feet in elevation and home to many birches.
I soon learned the story of the European colonists arriving in the New World more than 400
years ago with their big sail boats and needing to find a way to navigate the smaller rivers and
lakes so dominant in this post glacial landscape. The Native Americans of the Northeast
taught them how to build canoes made from white birch bark that were both light and fast. The
bark of the birch can be easily unwrapped in one large piece from the trunk of the tree and
then attached to the canoe structure.
The fall color of the Canoe Birch is stunning. It is considered to be the second best Betula –
after the Betula lenta – for its fall color. When the yellow leaves and the white bark are
standing in front of a dark green conifer, the effect is remarkable. In the winter, the tree is
susceptible to breakage under heavy snow or ice. One winter, I remember the White Birch in
front of my house being completely hunched and curved to the point that the top of the tree
was touching the ground. Amazingly, the tree recovered and stood straight up within a few
days after the ice had melted.
During the first few bitterly cold winters that the Europeans colonists spent in North America,
they suffered from scurvy caused by a deficiency in Vitamin C. They were not prepared for the
harsh climate and had no vegetables or fruit to eat during the long winter months. Again, the
Native Americans helped by sharing their knowledge of local resources. Their recipe for
healing scurvy was a concoction made from birch bark. Today, the sap of the birch is collected
and used for cleansing therapy.