Lady of the Woods
The Cherry Birch is a medium-sized deciduous tree that grows up to 20 meters tall. The leaves are oval-shaped with a finely toothed edge and a slender tip. Unlike other birch trees, this species has smooth, dark mahogany bark that is broken into scales without curly or peeling edges. The scales are prominently marked with small lens-shaped blister-like breaks (lenticels). The twigs smell like fresh, sweet wintergreen. Birches are especially fragrant after the rain because rain stimulates the production of terpenes – aromatic compounds found in many different trees and shrubs. In one of his poems, English poet Samuel Coleridge speaks of a birch tree as the ‘Lady of the Woods’, emphasizing the birch’s lady-like graceful elegance. The Cherry Birch got its name for its bark, which resembles that of the domestic Sweet Cherry (Prunus avium), a tree that is known to escape from cultivation in southern Ontario.
Cherry Birch is a very rare Carolinian tree that grows only in one known Ontario location in the Niagara Region. The single population of Cherry Birch in Canada is isolated at two sites on the Niagara peninsula in southern Ontario. A survey of the two sites in 2010, found only 17 trees out of the 50 trees that were originally identified in 1967. The wood of cherry birch is used for furniture, millwork, and cabinets.
Ojibwa, Cree, and other Algonquin First Nations used birch tree bark to build canoes and reinforce housing constructions. In some Anishinaabe communities, birch bark was said to be a sacred gift from a culture hero named Wenabozho, affectionally regarded as a teacher of humanity by many Anishinaabe people. In the story of the birch tree, one day during a lightning storm, Wenabozho took shelter underneath this tree. It protected him and from that day onward Wenabozho promised the birch tree that its bark would protect whatever it held.
Similar to maple sap, cherry birch sap can be used to make syrup. The trees can be tapped similarly but must be gathered about three times more often. Birch sap can be boiled the same as maple sap, but its syrup is stronger (like molasses). It can be used to make birch beer. The inner bark can be eaten raw as emergency food. The twigs and inner bark can be steeped to make tea and the tea can be used to treat fevers. The bark is anthelmintic, astringent, diaphoretic, diuretic, and stimulant. A tea made from the bark is used in the treatment of fevers, stomach aches, and lung ailments, it is said to be an excellent tonic in cases of dysentery.