skied our trails this cold New Year’s day. The snow was deep and the woods were silent and I enjoyed the solitude. As I moved from one trail to the next I noticed the ski tracks and surrounding snow was covered in tiny yellow speckles. Looking up I saw the birch trees that have released the millions of seeds from their pendulous catkins. 

Individually, each seed looks like the French ‘fleur de lis’ – the former Royal Arms - three petals gathered on a single base. 

The wind has most likely scattered the seeds, although it’s possible a flock of small finches, like pine siskins or common redpolls were feeding on the catkins and caused them to disperse.

Sometimes people have a hard time distinguishing birch trees from aspen. Birch will show bark that is peeling away from the trunk, and if you look at the uppermost branches, birch will look a dark, reddish brown color.

Birch trees have been best described by poet Robert Frost. Here is part of his famous poem “Birches.” In the poem, he talks about the flexibility of these trees, something discovered by young (and sometimes not so young) people who like to swing from their branches, but he also says:

Ice storms do that. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves

Thankfully we haven’t had a recent ice storm, but many of our birch trees have their uppermost branches broken off at the top, probably from previous storms, yet the trees manage to survive. Shedding some of the exterior or weakened branches may prevent the entire tree from toppling, as ice continues to build.

Birch trees are one of the species that is sensitive to the changing (warming) climate. It doesn’t do well in drought or extreme heat, so it will only continue to prosper in more northerly regions. 

It is a popular tree for use as decoration in homes and winter arrangements. In fact my husband and I made four little reindeer out of birch logs and branches – three to be used as props in my daughter’s store window and one that greets visitors in our front flower bed (now covered in snow). We also made a number of tea light ‘candle’ holders from some of the branches to give as gifts. 

Finally, some of the birch logs have found their place on our wood pile and will provide warmth in our woodstove in the coming months.

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