WHITE BIRCH

Betula papyrifera



For inquiries contact Joan Conway Hare, Instructor, Division of Continuing Education, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The graceful white birch, often planted in yards as an ornamental tree, is native to the Connecticut River Valley. This species grows wild throughout northern North America, and can be found in woods, most easily identified by its pure white bark that peels off the trunk in thin, paper-like layers. Another of this plant's common names, paper birch, and its scientific name, Betula papyrifera, which means paper- bearing birch, reflect the paper-like nature of the tree's outer bark.

Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands made extensive use of the white birch. All parts of the plant had practical uses, but the bark was by far the most important raw material. Birch bark played a key role in the manufacture of canoes for transportation, wigwams for shelter, and a host of useful implements made by the many tribes and nations of the Northeast.

THIS STURDY ABENAKI BIRCH BARK WIGWAM, OF RECENT CONTRUCTION, HAS SURVIVED A NUMBER OF NEW ENGLAND WINTERS. THE WIGWAM STANDS ON A PARCEL OF LAND IN INTERVALE, NEW HAMPSHIRE, THAT WAS ONCE USED AS A SUMMER HOME BY ABENAKI AND SOKOKI INDIANS. THE SITE IS NOW LISTED IN THE NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES.

Canoe birch is yet another common name for Betula papyrifera. The birch bark canoe was a marvel!

THIS CANOE IS ON DISPLAY AT THE OLD TOWN CANOE COMPANY, OLD TOWN, MAINE. IT IS BELIEVED TO BE AT LEAST 100 YEARS OLD.

Lightweight and easily portable, a canoe made of birch bark could still carry heavy loads. The canoes were made in many sizes, depending on how they were to be used. A small hunting canoe might be only nine or ten feet long, and carry one or two men. A canoe meant for use in the open ocean would be as long as twenty feet or more, and would carry a number of paddlers. An average-sized canoe was light enough to be carried by one person, and could be used in small rivers and streams as well as in the larger rivers.

Bark for canoe construction was best gathered during a winter thaw or just when the sap started to flow in the spring. A tree of the desired size, with bark up to nine layers thick, was felled and trimmed, and the bark was cut and stripped off in one piece. The wooden frame of the canoe was of northern white cedar. The birch bark, with the brown, inner layer of the bark turned to the outside, formed the skin. Seams were sewn with split roots of spruce or tamarack, then waterproofed with spruce resin. Birch bark canoes made by northern tribes were traded to tribes from more southern regions, where white birch was scarce, and later to European colonists. Our modern canvas and fiberglass canoes are patterned after the Native American birch bark canoe.

Smaller pieces of birch bark were used in making dwellings called wigwams. Wigwams were of two types. The dome-shaped wigwam had a framework of bent saplings that was covered with overlapping layers of birch bark.

OVERLAPPING LAYERS OF WHITE BIRCH BARK KEEP THE WIGWAM SNUG AND WATERTIGHT. THE BARK IS PLACED ON THE FRAME IN THE SAME ORIENTATION IT HAD ON THE TREE, i.e., WITH THE WHITE SIDE OF THE BARK ON THE OUTSIDE AND THE DARK, INNER BARK FACING TOWARD THE CENTER OF THE WIGWAM.

The conical wigwam, similar in shape to the tipi (or teepee) of western tribes, had a framework of slender upright poles placed to form the conical shape,

and covered by rolls of birch bark that had been sewn in overlapping layers to form a transportable, but watertight covering.

Woodlands Indians used birch bark to make rattles, torches, moose calls and many types of containers. Lightweight and flexible, the bark could be cut and bent to make containers of any desired shape. Trays, dishes, storage boxes, buckets and cooking pots were made of birch bark. The edges of the container were sewn together with plant fibers. If the edges were sealed with pine pitch or spruce resin, the container could be used to carry water or hung over a fire to cook a soup or stew. Birch bark cutouts or stencils often were used to decorate containers, and also provided patterns for Native American beadwork. The white outer bark layer made a good substitute for the paper that it resembles, and drawings could be made on it with a piece of charcoal. Birch bark burns easily. It was shredded and used for tinder to start campfires, folded and stuck in the cleft of a long pole to illuminate the water depths for night spear fishing, and rolled into cylinders used as long-burning torches to light a path through the woods.

Live white birch trees served the Woodlands tribes in other ways. The tree could be tapped in the same manner as a maple. The sap thus obtained was drunk as a beverage and, when boiled down, was used as the basis for teas, vinegar, and sugar to sweeten medicines. In times of famine, the inner bark could be eaten as food. The wood provided building material and fuel. In previous centuries, the white birch was certainly of major importance to the way of life of many Native Americans, particularly that of the Algonquian peoples of northern New England.

If you are interested in learning more about plants used by Native Americans in New England, a 3-credit course, Ethnobotany of Northeast American Indians, is being offered this summer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For more information about the course or to register for the course, contact Joan Conway Hare, Biology Department, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003, or call her at (413) 253-2621 or e-mail her at vanhare@aol.com

References:

American Friends Service Committee. The Wabanakis of Maine and the Maritimes.

Prepared and published by the American Friends Service Committee,
Philadelphia, 1989.

Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants. Dover Publications

Inc., New York, 1979.

Fernald, Merritt Lyndon. Grey's Manual of Botany [8th Edition]. American Book Company, New

York, 1950.

Kavash, E. Barrie. Native Harvests. Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1979.

Phillips, Roger. Trees of North America and Europe. Random House Inc., New York, 1978.

Richardson, Joan. Wild Edible Plants of New England. DeLorme Publishing Company, Yarmouth,

Maine, 1981.

Sita, Lisa. Indians of the Northeast. Running Press Book Publishers, Philadelphia, 1997.

Wilbur, C. Keith. The New England Indians [2nd Edition]. Globe Pequot Press, Old Saybrook,

Connecticut, 1996.