Native of the Month – Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

There are about forty species of birch, growing in widespread habitats from the sides of streams and rivers to forest boundaries and open fields. They are one of the oldest known trees, with leaf imprints found from the Late Cretaceous period, which ended about 67 million years ago. These living fossils are wind-pollinated and tend to colonize quickly, particularly in disturbed areas, creating beautiful stands with trees reaching heights of 60-80 feet.

They typically enjoy a lot of water, making them a good choice for rain gardens or landscaping for natural stream restoration projects. They are so attractive that they can easily serve as a specimen in a front yard or formal landscape, their small leaves turning brilliant yellow in the fall and blowing away in autumn breezes, creating less of a maintenance chore of leaf collection than some larger-leafed species. Their graceful trunks and branching structure can be stunning focal points when illuminated from below by landscape lights, particularly in the winter when their “bones” are easy to see.

Birch belong to the genus Betulacea, along with alders, willows and hornbeams.

Common names for birch come in a number of colors:  white birch, black birch, gray birch, silver birch and yellow birch; each distinguished by certain characteristics, often by how their bark naturally peels from the tree.

Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) bark is silvery bronze at maturity and peels in small, papery pieces. The peeling occurs when lenticels, the dark horizontal lines in the bark, stretch due to the tree’s growth and then peel up and away from the trunk. Lenticels serve an important function by allowing air and gas exchange between the atmosphere and the tree’s internal tissues.

Yellow birch is the most important birch species commercially, used for fine furniture and woodturning, as it is strong and develops a smooth and satiny finish.

One location to admire yellow birch is along the Limberlost trail in Shenandoah National Park. At 1029m (3,377 ft) elevation, the birch grow happily along the trail. The area tells the tale of a quickly-changing forest as the birch are growing prolifically following the mighty hemlocks that have succumbed to the invasive non-native hemlock woolly adelgid. The hemlocks’ demise open up opportunities for the birch to fill the void.

Native American Indians possessed in the past and practice of the uses of native plants. The birch is a valuable survival food and was utilized by indigenous people during starving times. The ground bark of the birch when mixed with flour may support life when other food is unavailable.

‘A Jesuit missionary noted that the bark of oak, birch, linden, and that of other trees, when well cooked and pounded, and then put into the water in which fish had been boiled, or else mixed with fish-oil made some excellent stews’ notes Horace Kephart in a 1917 version of Camping and Woodcraft.[1]

Native peoples have long made use of birch bark for canoes and storage containers, tapping for syrup in the spring, enjoying the twigs which have a wintergreen taste (found in both yellow birch and sweet birch), making birch tea and utilizing the paper-like bark to start fires, even after rains, due to volatile resins in the outer layer.

Euell Gibbons, wild plant expert, notes that sweet birch (Betula lenta) sap flows about one month after maples and that the sap can be consumed straight from the tree and ‘tastes more like spring water than anything else, but it has a faint sweetness and a bare hint of wintergreen flavor and aroma’.[2]

He also provides directions on how to make birch beer by boiling honey and birch sap, pouring it over finely chopped sweet birch twigs and letting it ferment with the help of a little yeast. He cautions consuming it with restraint as it has a ‘kick like a mule’ (Gibbons, 34).

The bark allows hiding spaces for many insects over the winter, treats which woodpeckers enjoy ferreting out. Birds eat the seeds in the winter and the foliage supports several hundred species of moths and butterflies.[3]

In conclusion, for an attractive and valuable native tree in all four seasons, consider the yellow birch or planting a stand for increased wildlife benefit. They can live 150 years and maybe up to 300 years in old growth forests.

 

Chris Anderson
White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Road
Luray, VA

[1] Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917) p. 420.

[2] Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (New York: David McKay Company, 1962), p.34.

[3] Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home (Portland: Timber Press, 2007), p. 163.

Around the Farm, 26th May 2018

Some photos of our rapidly-growing stock with this year’s great spring weather and abundant rains.

Native of the Month, Robinia psuedoacacia, Black Locust

The south boasts some mighty fine natural smells in the spring and summer– honeysuckle, wisteria, lilac, magnolias all in bloom – but the flowers of black locust rank near the top for sweet perfume.

With creamy white panicles resembling wisteria, the flowers of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) create a stunning display against the delicate green foliage in early summer. Their fragrance wafts through warm air but admirers only have about ten days to enjoy them as they do not last long.

Ask any farmer what is the best wood for fence posts and many will likely name locust. Indeed, its longevity, even when in contact with soil, is well known and the early Europeans of Jamestown built their first structures using locust. A century later, Mark Catesby, historian and explorer, noted that these original buildings were still standing strong, attesting to locust’s hardiness. Those who heat their homes with wood stoves eagerly seek out locust as an all-nighter wood that burns hot.

As with many native plants, the benefits of locust certainly came from Native Americans. Black locust is native to the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains but Europeans found it growing in the Piedmont and coastal areas when they arrived. Sophisticated and extensive trade routes existed among Native peoples for centuries and it is likely that Shawnee, Cherokee and/or Haudenosaunee shared seeds of black locust with members of the Powhatan Confederacy and other nations to the east. The strength of the black locust wood made it a preferable material not only for building but also for tools, bows and arrow shafts.

Black locust trees now grow around the world as their reputation as a preferred building material, beautiful landscape tree and source of excellent honey spread and seeds and seedlings were exported to other countries.

The scientific name Robinia honors Jean Robin, landscaper and botanist for the King IV of France. Pseudoacacia refers to the leaflets resemblance to the acacia tree.

They belong to the legume family and have alternate, pinnately compound leaves with 7-19 oblong leaflets. The distinctive dark, braided bark resembles thick and fibrous rope with furrows and ridges.

Black locust enjoys full sun and can reach heights averaging 70-80 feet with a diameter of two to three feet. They do not tolerate shade very well. Given plenty of room, they can grow surprisingly attractive and balanced canopies. Their seeds resemble flat pods and rabbits, deer, bobwhite quail, mourning doves and others consume them. Honey connoisseurs seek out the light – sometimes almost clear – honey, made more valuable as some years are much better than others for nectar production. George Petrides and Janet Wehr note in Eastern Trees[1] that young shoots and bark can sometimes be poisonous to livestock.

In the landscape, black locust is valuable as a pioneer species, coming up quickly in disturbed sites. As with other legumes, they have the ability to fix nitrogen, an important trait in rebuilding soil structure following disturbances such as fire or land clearing. They are also good at preventing erosion, as their hardiness allows them to take hold and grow fast on slopes. They are often used on mine reclamation sites due to their hardy nature and ability to withstand acidic soils.

They are generally not bothered by many pests, though leaf miners can occasionally blemish the foliage. Their tendency for limb die back makes them better suited to larger landscapes away from buildings or parking lots but placed in locations where their fragrant blossoms can be enjoyed and they can spread out unimpeded by other trees.

As noted in the book, The Remarkable Trees of Virginia, in 2007, the Virginia champion black locust graced the yard of a home in Wytheville with a height of 95 feet and a circumference exceeding 168 inches. Its canopy spread shows how beautiful black locust can be in the landscape. The current champion lives in Fauquier County in Upperville with a height of 71 feet, a crown spread of 74 feet and circumference of 195 inches.

As noted in the Remarkable Trees of Virginia2, in 2007, the Virginia champion black locust graced the yard of a home in Wytheville with a height of 95 feet and a circumference exceeding 168 inches. Its canopy spread shows how beautiful black locust can be in the landscape. The current champion lives in Fauquier County in Upperville with a height of 71 feet, a crown spread of 74 feet and circumference of 195 inches.

Chris Anderson, Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Rd.
Luray, VA 22835

[1] George Petrides, Janet Wehr, Eastern Trees, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988),  p. 230.

[2] Nancy Hugo Ross and Jeff Kirwan, Remarkable Trees of Virginia, (Earlysville, Albemarle Books, 2008), p 115.

Spring at the Farm: Preparing for the Next Crop

A few photos around this farm this spring.

WHN is now at the point where we will be replanting some of our original tree blocks from 2012-2013.  The first step in this process is field ripping.

Field ripping or subsoiling is soil cultivation practice that helps reduce hardpan layers created in soils due to surface compaction or from using older tillage practices, including moldboard plows that turn the soil over in a furrow slice at the same depth each time when plowed.  This was a common agriculture tool and practice for rows crops like corn and soybeans prior to the more modern no-till methods or chisel plows utilized now.  The fields we are replanting were ripped or subsoiled with a smaller single-shank plow back in 2012 and 2013, but prior to this the field was in row crop production.  Eric has been able to locate a larger subsoiler/ripper and larger tractor to help break up residual hard layers and to help fill in holes where trees were harvested.  This is especially important in the drive roads that were planted in turf; the compaction from trucks and equipment over the past 5 years adds up and needs to be addressed in order to provide a good medium for root growth.

The two-shank subsoiler/ripper we are using now has a winged wedge at the bottom of the steel shank that goes into the soil 12-18”.  When pulled behind the tractor, the ground will actually raise up a couple of inches.  We try to subsoil/rip each field twice, prior to planting or replanting.  Ideally, we would like to do this in two different directions. In this case, since we are targeting a field that was in previously in nursery production, we are subsoiling parallel to our planting rows–paying special attention to where trees were planted and to the drive roads.  The next step in the soil preparation will be to disk the field to break up the vegetation and mix the organic matter from the turf and clover plantings back into the soil and prepare a seedbed for this summer’s cover crop of sudangrass and buckwheat.  This fall we will subsoil and disk again prior to replanting trees or putting in a winter cover crop prior to a spring planting.

Tree of the Month – Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel)

With spidery yellow petals and a delicate citrus scent, the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower is unique among shrubs of eastern forests; delicate tentacles extend outwards from the twigs, often overlooked by the foliage on the branches in the fall. Several hybrid witch hazels bloom in the spring, but our native is a late autumn-blooming beauty.

They generally grow 10-25 feet tall as twisted shrub or small tree, frequently tucked under the canopy of other moist, upland eastern hardwood trees. Seeds can shoot up to 20 feet from ripe pods and they often form clumps. Once established, they tend to be pest and disease free and do not require much, if any, care. For full flowering, they require moisture in the summer and a period of winter cold. They are unique in North America as they are the only tree with fruit, flowers and next year’s buds on the plant simultaneously.

In addition to its attractiveness in the landscape, the medicinal properties of witch hazel are well known by many Indigenous cultures across North America as the shrubs grow from Nova Scotia to Georgia and west to Minnesota and Missouri. Native American Indians were (and are) the first doctors and botanists in North America, understanding the healing properties of native trees, shrubs, and plants and the specific seasons in which they should be harvested.

Drugstores carry commercial extracts today. Dried leaves, bark and twigs are used as an astringent and for treating a variety of maladies including tumors, eye infection, burns and hemorrhoids. The mechanism of witch hazel astringency involves tightening of skin proteins which draw together, forming a protective covering and promoting healing.1

Witch hazel is one of the most common home botanical remedies in the US today, perhaps even surpassing aloe. It is sometimes applied with a steam towel to bruises and strains or in a cold compress to treat fevers.2

They are related to sweet gum and the common name refers to their use in divining or “witching” water.

American Forests lists a Russel County, Virginia witch hazel nominated in 2017 as the current national champion.

For survivalists and “preppers” and those interested in continuing Indigenous knowledge, witch hazel is a good plant to know and grow.

For landscapers, witch hazel offers solid structure throughout the summer and can be planted as a specimen shrub or small tree, border or mixed hedge. They add late season interest, particularly when planted in locations where their sweet flowers can be enjoyed.

Chris Anderson, Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Road
Luray, VA 22835

1Guide to Popular Natural Products, Facts and Comparisons, Missouri, 1999, p. 228.
2Magic and Medicine of Plants, Readers Digest Association, Inc., New York, 1986, p. 345.

Around the Farm, March 2018

We recently completed our digging for Spring 2018. Check out some of the action in the gallery below!