Article #72, June, 2003
By Bill Cook
Few people fail to recognize a paper birch, with its bright white bark peeling from the trunk. It is one of the “no brainers” in the world of tree identification and an icon of the “northwoods”.
The birch family, Betulaceae, is a truly northern group of trees and shrubs stretching into the arctic. Worldwide, there are six genera and about 100 species, with nine species in the Upper Peninsula. While the family has the necessary botanical similarities, their ecological ranges and habitats probably couldn't be much more diverse.
Paper birch may be the most popular tree among U.P. tourists and remains the most common birch in our forests. However, its presence is declining due to old age and natural forest succession to other forest types. Wildfire and other disturbances favor the regeneration of the species. Paper birch is a short-lived, medium-sized tree that requires full sunlight.
Yellow birch is the opposite, a large tree usually associated with cooler northern hardwood associations and eastern hemlock. These two species are the only “full-sized” trees in the family. High quality yellow birch sawlogs obtain high prices in the market. The twigs of yellow birch possess a characteristic wintergreen flavor, a definitive identification clue in the winter. Seeds of both yellow and paper birch resemble small “fleur de lis”, often seen on top of the snow.
Bog birch lives in bogs and swamps, seldom growing more than a couple feet tall. The shrub often forms loose colonies of many stems. The leaves are small, about an inch long. The leaves from all the other birch family members are similar to each other.
Ironwood and musclewood are smaller trees that grow under the higher forest canopy. The very hard wood has earned ironwood its name, a fact not lost on those who cut and split their own firewood. The trunk of musclewood appears sinewy, suggestive of the well-toned leg of a runner. Both have papery fruits containing hard seeds. Ironwood is sometimes called “hop-hornbeam” because the fruit resembles that of hops.
Two species of hazel can also be found in upland understories of more open woodlands. Beaked hazel is the most common, getting its name from the tube extending from the husk of the fruit. American hazel tends to be more southern in range. Both species have tiny delicate maroon flowers in the spring and provide edible nuts in the late summer and fall. Hazel is a choice wildlife shrub.
The aquatic equivalent of hazel is tag alder, the ubiquitous shrub across many U.P. wetlands. Maligned by many due to dense, nearly impenetrable thickets, it remains good alternate habitat for ruffed grouse and other wildlife. Green alder is similar in appearance and much less common, except in areas along Lake Superior. Both species have male flower catkins, often in triplets that resemble turkey feet. The female flowers produce small woody cones, under an inch long.
Paper and yellow birch are the only commercial tree species in the family, comprising about eight percent of the timber volume in the Upper Peninsula, less across all of Michigan. However, the birches remain outstanding in the lore and appreciation of our great northern forests.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: email@example.com
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