Cherry Birch

Betula lenta

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. Cherry Birch is also known as Black Birch or Sweet Birch. 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. Cherry Birch is found on moist, well-drained clay loam soil over limestone bedrock with White Oak, Red Oak, Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple, and other deciduous trees. The wood of cherry birch is used for furniture, millwork, and cabinets. It is similar to yellow birch wood and is often not distinguished from it in the lumber trade.

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.

The essential oil distilled from the bark is anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and rubefacient. It is used in the treatment of rheumatism, bladder infections, and neuralgia. Cherry birch was once harvested extensively to produce oil of wintergreen, the tree was borderline endangered until the 1950s-60s when synthetic oil of wintergreen appeared. In the wild, birch serves as a food source for caterpillars and moths.

There are about 10 Cherry Birch trees at The Arboretum, most of them located in the Native Trees of Ontario collection.

Since 2015, the University of Guelph Arboretum has received financial support from the Species at Risk Stewardship Program to help implement a project entitled “Stewardship of Cherry Birch: Building on the Rare Woody Plants of Ontario Program at the Arboretum”. This project evaluated the health of Cherry Birch trees, habitat conditions, and the potential for recruiting and transplanting Cherry Birch trees on private property in the Niagara region. The property owner supports these initiatives and continues to work with Arboretum staff.
As of 2017, the four pre-existing mature Cherry Birch trees on the private property were in “fair to good general health”, but were threatened by soil erosion, wind exposure, and improper pruning.

Additionally, the area has been heavily fragmented, cultivated, and colonized by invasive plant species, rendering it unsuitable for seedling recruitment. In response to these threats, Arboretum staff coordinated the removal of dead tree limbs by qualified practitioners and propagated Cherry Birch seedlings that will be transplanted when growth is more advanced. Seeds were harvested at this site and the Arboretum’s living gene bank. Several hundred seedlings are currently being cared for at the University of Guelph Arboretum.

I always thought of birches as autumnal trees; partially this is because of the pronounced aroma of the birch leaves that smell almost rain-like, and many people associate this smell with autumnal forest. In my own culture, just like for many Canadian first nations, birches hold a special place: birch bark was used for writing, basket weaving, shoemaking and many other essential household and domestic purposes. I was intrigued when I stumbled upon Coleridge calling a birch tree “lady of the woods”, because in my mind, birch trees do not associate with elegance or delicate nature, but more with mothering and providing qualities.
In this composition, on associative level, I was trying to combine elegance of birch trees as described by Coleridge with rich, mothering qualities and see where the sound takes me. I used choral vocal arrangements and harmonies to give the composition lightness and airiness that would simultaneously sound rich and voluminous.

Plant biodata in this composition provides staccato-like dynamic sonic backdrop that is meant to dissolve and disappear, as the listener continues listening further. This soundscape reminded me of the echo in an autumnal forest when the air is thick and heavy, so I applied extra reverb and delay on the soundscape to give it a more echo-like quality. As I was working with the track, in my mind’s eye I saw colours that were all shades of pale yellow, peach, and pale orange.

Sonically, I was aiming to create an atmosphere that would remind the listener of a frosty early morning walk though the wet, misty forest as the pale autumn sun shines through the branches and heavy mist. Maybe you can listen to this track as you take an October morning stroll in the Arboretum and let me know if the atmosphere of the composition matches your journey?

Other Tree Stories

The Ancient One
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Lady of the Woods