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What is a White Paper Birch?

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  • Written By: M. Haskins
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2016
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White paper birch, also known as American white birch and silver birch, is a species of tree native to North America. It grows wild across the continent from Alaska to Newfoundland and as far south as Colorado, but is most common in Canada and northern parts of the US. This is a deciduous tree, shedding its leaves every year, and it usually grows about 65 feet (about 20 m) tall. Its leaves are 2-5 inches (5-12 cm) long, 1 1/2-3 1/2 inches (4-9 cm) broad, dull green, with pointy tips and double-toothed edges. The most striking feature of this birch tree is the bark that is bright white with black markings and can be peeled off in thin, papery layers.

This tree is commonly grown as an ornamental landscape tree in gardens and public spaces. It is valued for the look of its bark and foliage, and for its graceful shape with a slender trunk — or trunks if the tree is multi-stemmed — and narrow or pyramid-shaped crown. Its wood is not commonly used for commercial purposes, though some is harvested for specialty lumber, pulp wood and veneer. The wood makes excellent fire wood and the bark is a remarkably good fire-starter, able to ignite and burn even when wet.

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Native Americans used white paper birch for many things. Its highly weather- and rot-resistant bark was used to make canoes, giving this species one of its names: canoe birch. The bark was also used to make items like baskets, roofing, and mats. White paper birch wood was used for utensils and weapons, and the sap was used for medicinal purposes.

In the wild, white paper birch is a significant food source for many wild animals like moose, porcupine and white-tailed deer. It also provides nesting sites and habitat for various birds and insects, making this tree an important part of the ecosystem. In some areas, white paper birch has been planted along riverbeds to help protect and restore the environment there, both by preventing soil erosion and by promoting various forms of wildlife.

This North American birch tree grows best in well-drained soil and full sun. White paper birch is a very hardy species, able to survive temperatures as low as -62 degrees Fahrenheit (-52 C), but it does not grow well in shade or hot temperatures and is sensitive to drought. It can be grown from seed or cuttings, but the easiest way to establish a white paper birch in one's garden is to buy a young tree, around two years old, and plant it in a favorable spot.

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