The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 12, 2010


Gray Birch

Multi-trunk grey birches at Maple Street Bridge (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Contrast between young bark and mature bark
Contrast between young bark and mature bark
(Photo by Kay Fairweather)

The Gray Birch is one wild and crazy tree. It doesn’t care where it grows; it rushes in and colonizes clearings and burn sites where other trees fear to tread; it lives fast and dies young; its good looks inspire actual poets and the inner poet in the rest of us. Nathaniel Bellows wrote in his poem titled “Russian Birch” (but applicable to our Gray Birch) “Is it agony that has bleached them to such beauty? Their stand / is at the edge of our property white spires like fingers, through which / the deer emerge with all the tentative grace of memory.”

Name: The Gray Birch is Betula populifolia. The genus name is the Latin word for birch and the species name describes leaves like the poplar. The common names for birches can be confusing. For example, both the Gray Birch and the Paper Birch are sometimes called White Birch. In addition, Gray Birch is also known as Old Field Birch, Poverty Birch, Wire Birch, and Poplar Birch. It is native to northeastern North America.

Where you can see it: Gray Birch is not too fussy about habitat, being as happy on dry sandy soil as it is in streamside locations. It likes full or part sun. All of this means it is quite common. There are many clumps at Foss Farm – some in the open areas, some at the forest edge, and some in thickets. There are some fairly large ones at Towle where the path from the parking lot meets the field and others along the edge of the field. There is a clump with a nice view by the Maple Street bridge.

Distinguishing characteristics: There’s the bark and the bite. First, the bark. Gray Birch when mature has grayish-white bark which does not peel readily like the Paper Birch and often has black triangular marks at the base of the branches and various other black markings. The bark of shoots and twigs is reddish brown and covered with pale colored lenticels. Now, the bite. If you bite into a twig and taste wintergreen, you probably have a Yellow Birch or Black Birch but definitely not the Gray Birch. Another characteristic is the single male catkin at the tip of the twig. Other birches in our area (except the River Birch which is easily identified by its ragged bark and hairy twigs) have two or more male catkins at the tip. These catkins are present through the winter. Another very common characteristic of Gray Birch is its tendency to have multiple trunks.

The bends: The trunks of Gray Birch are extremely flexible. Heavy snow can cause them to bend all the way to the ground without breaking them. In the absence of snow, you can test this with your body weight. In his poem “Birches” Robert Frost wrote “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better. / I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again. / That would be good both going and coming back. / One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Sources: University of Connecticut Plant Database at (browse for Gray Birch); Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada, by William M. Harlow; Winter Tree Finder, by May Theilgaard Watts and Tom Watts; Audubon Guide to North American Trees – Eastern Region, by Elbert L. Little; The Poetry of Robert Frost: Complete and Unabridged; I found Nathaniel Bellows at

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