Monday was Family Day here in Ontario. The statutory holiday, celebrated on the third Monday of February, was added to the calendar a few years ago to give long-suffering Ontarians a little break from the mid-winter doldrums. By the middle of February, the snow/cold thing has gotten old, very old. First observed in 2008, Family Day has been embraced with enthusiasm. This year, Monday was a very pleasant winter day and gave families a great opportunity to get outside and enjoy the winter, at least for a day. It was reported on the radio that Ottawa’s Winterlude celebrations were well-attended. RailGuy and I celebrated with a visit to BirdGirl and a walk in the Hundred Acre Woods with our daughter and Raven, the Grandog.
We haven’t had a major snowstorm recently. It seems Washington has been taking the brunt of winter. The snow remaining in the woods had a bit of a crust on it and walking was easy. We enjoyed a very pleasant stroll, as did Raven, who you can see dashing ahead in the photo above. My eye was drawn to a number of beautiful, large yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) trees we passed. The forest features a mix of evergreen species and deciduous trees. The bark of the yellow birch trees makes them easy to identify.
The reason why yellow birch is also known as curly birch is obvious. Perhaps not quite as well-known as paper birch, with it’s conspicuous white bark, the yellow birch is a common tree of temperate, northern forests, although agriculture and forestry have taken a toll on the yellow birch population. It rarely grows in large stands. Rather, it is likely to be found keeping company with hemlocks and sugar maples. Beech, white ash and white pine are also common neighbours. The largest of the birch species, yellow birch can reach a diameter of 90 cm (36 inches) or more and may live as long as 300 years. It prefers moist, fertile soil and sometimes grows along the edge of swamps.
Yellow birch trees produce seeds that are enjoyed by finches and other wintering birds, with a bountiful crop occuring every three years or so. In spite of the large number of seeds it produces, yellow birch may have trouble getting started. Seeds need a clear spot of ground or a rotted log to thrive. Where it grows with maples, the mat of maple leaves, which don’t decompose readily, may prevent tiny seedlings from sinking their roots into the soil, and the youngsters perish.
Woodpeckers may seek out a birch with a decaying core to excavate a nest site. Yellow birch saplings are a favorite of deer and porcupines enjoy the aromatic bark of mature trees. Even people may enjoy the twigs of yellow birch, which, along with those of cherry birch (a southern species), are a source of oil of wintergreen (methyl salicylate). The twigs can be used to brew wintergreen tea. At one time, the wintergreen used in gum and toothpaste was extracted from birch trees. It is now produced synthetically.