curling paper sheets
on a peeling river birch
growing by the Kaw
The cinnamon-colored, exfoliating bark of the River Birch is spectacular in the winter, after its spade-shaped, double-toothed leaves have turned yellow and fallen. Long reddish-brown male catkins dangle from the bare branches. They will stay on the tree all winter and will pollinate the plump green female catkins that grow in the spring. The fruit is a tiny cone filled with winged seeds that travel by wind and water. As the name suggests, the River Birch usually grows near water, on sandbars and islands, stream banks, lake shores, swamps and floodplains. This 80-foot double-trunk specimen is growing in the rich, moist, alluvial floodplain of the Kaw River.
Although the soft wood is not useful for timber, the tree has many other uses. Many different birds eat the seeds, Whitetail Deer eat the leaves and twigs, Cottontail Rabbits eat the saplings, North American Beavers eat the bark, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, tree squirrels and insects drink the sap. Native Americans boiled the sap into a syrup and used the inner bark as a survival food. The River Birch does not live long, but it grows fast, up to 25 m (80 feet) tall, and its beautiful bark makes it a popular ornamental tree.