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What is a Canoe Birch?

By J.M. Densing
Updated May 16, 2024
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A canoe birch, scientific name Betula papyrifera, is a medium sized deciduous tree with distinctive white bark. As suggested by the name, the tree was used by Native Americans to make canoes and other important items. The canoe birch tree is native to North America in many areas of the continent. It's a popular ornamental tree that grows well in sunny locations with moist, well drained soil.

As a medium sized tree the canoe birch typically grows to a height of approximately 50 to 70 feet (15.2 to 21.3 m) and spreads out to a width of about 25 to 45 feet (7.6 to 13.7 m) across. The leaves of the canoe birch are oval shaped with jagged sawtooth edges. In the autumn, the leaves turn various shades of yellow. The flowers of the tree are nondescript clusters called "catkins" that release pollen in the spring. The flowers are followed immediately by soft fruits that resemble cones and release seeds in the fall and winter.

The canoe birch can have one main trunk or several stems; the wood is very light colored and is used to make a variety of items such as toothpicks, flooring, and toys. The trunk is covered in white bark with periodic dark brown marks called branch scars. The bark peels off easily in thin papery layers, giving the tree one of its other common names, the paper birch. These layers were used as a paper substitute by Native Americans for charcoal drawings.

Native Americans also used the bark of the canoe birch to make a wide variety of items. When removed whole from the tree, the bark is a flexible, lightweight, strong material. It was used to build birch bark canoes, and small overlapping pieces were used to create a waterproof outer covering for dwellings called wigwams. It was also shaped into different types of containers to make cups, rattles, moose calls, and torches.

The native area of the canoe birch is North America, ranging from Alaska and many parts of Canada to northern regions of the U.S. It thrives in cooler northern climates and tends to grow in open, sunny parts of forests. Due to its need for plenty of sun, it is often one of the first plants to grow back in burned out woodland areas. With the distinctive appearance of the bark, it's a popular ornamental tree. It grows best with cool, moist, well drained soil in a location with abundant sun, and might require frequent watering

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