White birch trees (Betula papyrifera) are also known as paper birch, canoe birch and silver birch. This short-lived tree does not live more than 140 years. The showy bark and fall leaf colour make white birches a good ornamental tree. The dappled shade under the white birch trees enables grass or gardens to grow under the birches. The lumber from white birches is used commercially for veneer production. Wild animals and birds browse on the leaves, branches, bark and seeds of the white birch tree.
White birch trees are 50 to 70 foot tall deciduous trees with a single trunk and white bark that peels off in paper-like layers. These fast-growing trees sprout in nurseries, or clumps, of three or four trees in the wild. The heart-shaped leaves, which are dark-green on top and paler underneath, are 2 to 4 inches long and 1-1/2 to 3 inches wide. The leaves turn a bright yellow colour during the frosty fall weather. In the early spring, white birch trees bloom with 2- to 4-inch long catkins.
These stately trees adapt to nearly any type of soil conditions, but are often found in sandy, gravelly soils with good drainage. White birch trees do not tolerate pollution or extreme heat. This variety of tree is adapted to cold climates and does not grow well in climates where summertime temperatures are greater than 21.1 degrees Celsius. Ideal climates for white birches have short, cool summers and long, cold winters with snow.
White birch trees grow wild throughout northern North America. According to the University of Connecticut Extension, this variety of birch tree is the most widely spread of all the birch trees. Groves of white birch trees are found in areas of the northern limit of tree growth. White birches grow from Labrador to Alaska, south to the Rocky Mountains and east to Pennsylvania. These cool climate trees grow well in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 2.
White birch trees have a long history of use by the Eastern Woodland Native Americans. Canoes were created using the thin bark of the trees. These canoes were lightweight and portable, but could still carry a heavy load. The range of canoes made by the Native Americans included small, hunting canoes to large, ocean-going canoes. The bark was used in the building of wigwams as well. Small pieces of bark were secured over a framework of twigs and branches. These structures were warm and watertight. Other Native American uses include making trays, dishes, storage boxes, cooking pots, buckets and torches.