1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Birch

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BIRCH (Betula), a genus of plants allied to the alder (Alnus), and like it a member of the natural order Betulaceae. The various species of birch are mostly trees of medium size, but several of them are merely shrubs. They are as a rule of a very hardy character, thriving best in northern latitudes—the trees having round, slender branches, and serrate, deciduous leaves, with barren and fertile catkins on the same tree, and winged fruits, the so-called seeds. The bark in most of the trees occurs in fine soft membranous layers, the outer cuticle of which peels off in thin, white, papery sheets.

1911 Britannica-Birch-Betula alba.png
From Strasburger, Lerbuch der Botanik.
Betula alba. 1, Branch with male (a) and female (b)
inflorescences; 2, bract with three male flowers; 3, bract
with three female flowers; 4, infrutescence; 5, fruit.
(After Wossidlo.)

The common white or silver birch (B. alba) (see fig.) grows throughout the greater part of Europe, and also in Asia Minor, Siberia and North America, reaching in the north to the extreme limits of forest vegetation, and stretching southward on the European continent as a forest tree to 45° N. lat., beyond which birches occur only in special situations or as isolated trees. It is well known in England for its graceful habit, the slender, grey—or white—barked stem, the delicate, drooping branches and the quivering leaves, a bright, clear green in spring, becoming duller in the summer, but often keeping their greenness rather late into the autumn. The male and female flowers are borne on separate catkins in April and May. It is a shortlived tree, generally from 40 to 50 ft. high with a trunk seldom more than 1 ft. in diameter. It flourishes in light soils and is one of the few trees that will grow amongst heather; owing to the large number of “winged seeds” which are readily scattered by the wind, it spreads rapidly, springing up where the soil is dry and covering clearings or waste places.

The birch is one of the most wide-spread and generally useful of forest trees of Russia, occurring in that empire in vast forests, in many instances alone, and in other cases mingled with pines, poplars and other forest trees. The wood is highly valued by carriage-builders, upholsterers and turners, on account of its toughness and tenacity, and in Russia it is prized as firewood and a source of charcoal. A very extensive domestic industry in Russia consists in the manufacture of wooden spoons, which are made to the extent of 30,000,000 annually, mostly of birch. Its pliant and flexible branches are made into brooms; and in ancient Rome the fasces of the lictors, with which they cleared the way for the magistrates, were made up of birch rods. A similar use of birch rods has continued among pedagogues to times so recent that the birch is yet, literally or metaphorically, the instrument of school-room discipline. The bark of the common birch is much more durable, and industrially of greater value, than the wood. It is impermeable to water, and is therefore used in northern countries for roofing, for domestic utensils, for boxes and jars to contain both solid and liquid substances, and for a kind of bark shoes, of which it is estimated 25 millions of pairs are annually worn by the Russian peasantry. The jars and boxes of birch bark made by Russian peasants are often stamped with very effective patterns. By dry distillation the bark yields an empyreumatic oil, called diogott in Russia, used in the preparation of Russia leather; to this oil the peculiar pleasant odour of the leather is due. The bark itself is used in tanning; and by the Samoiedes and Kamchatkans it is ground up and eaten on account of the starchy matter it contains. A sugary sap is drawn from the trunk in the spring before the opening of the leaf-buds, and is fermented into a kind of beer and vinegar. The whole tree, but especially the bark and leaves, has a very pleasant resinous odour, and from the young leaves and buds an essential oil is distilled with water. The leaves are used as fodder in northern latitudes.

The species which belong peculiarly to America (B. lenta, excelsa, nigra, papyracea, &c.) are generally similar in appearance and properties to B. alba, and have the same range of applications. The largest and most valuable is the black birch (B. lenta) found abundantly over an extensive area in British North America, growing 60 to 70 ft. high and 2 to 3 ft. in diameter. It is a wood most extensively used for furniture and for carriage-building, being tough in texture and bearing shocks well, while much of it has a handsome grain and it is susceptible of a fine polish. The bark, which is dark brown or reddish, and very durable, is used by Indians and backwoodsmen in the same way as the bark of B. alba is used in northern Europe.

The canoe or paper birch (B. papyracea) is found as far north as 70° N. on the American continent, but it becomes rare and stunted in the Arctic circle. Professor Charles Sprague Sargent says: “It is one of the most widely distributed trees of North America. From Labrador it ranges to the southern shores of Hudson’s Bay and to those of the Great Bear Lake, and to the valley of the Yukon and the coast of Alaska, forming with the aspen, the larch, the balsam poplar, the banksian pine, the black and white spruces and the balsam fir, the great subarctic transcontinental forest; and southward it ranges through all the forest region of the Dominion of Canada and the northern states.” It is a tree of the greatest value to the inhabitants of the Mackenzie river district in British North America. Its bark is used for the construction of canoes, and for drinking-cups, dishes and baskets. From the wood, platters, axe-handles, snow-shoe frames, and dog sledges are made, and it is worked into articles of furniture which are susceptible of a good polish. The sap which flows in the spring is drawn off and boiled down to an agreeable spirit, or fermented with a birch-wine of considerable alcoholic strength. The bark is also used as a substitute for paper. A species (B. Bhojputtra) growing on the Himalayan Mountains, as high up as 9000 ft., yields large quantities of fine thin papery bark, extensively sent down to the plains as a substitute for wrapping paper, for covering the “snakes” of hookahs and for umbrellas. It is also said to be used as writing paper by the mountaineers; and in Kashmir it is in general use for roofing houses.