What is it? Paper Birch
What do the nerds call it? Betula papyrifera
Who is it related to? It is in the Betulaceae family, or the family of birches, alders, hazels, and hornbeams.
How can you tell it is what it is? The light colored and smooth bark really sets this family of trees apart. Essentially the bright white peeling bark is often enough to make a confident ID on this iconic tree. There are similar species in the area, but while the yellow birch and river birch both have heavily flaking bark, but both have a different coloring than the bright white of the paper bark.
The style in which the bark is peeling is also another clue. The paper birch peels off in wider sheets and strips, whereas the yellow birch bark comes off in very thin strips, making it look shredded on the surface. River birch bark often displays multiple darker layers that are still half attached, whereas the paper birch birch bark seems to detach after just a layer or two.
Alders and aspens can also have bright white bark, with similar black horizontal “scars”, but their bark hugs the trunk tightly rather than sloughing off any chance it gets.
As with most trees, you can also look at the leaves to differentiate between species. Paper birch leaves occur alternately on their stems, are roughly oval shaped, taper to a point, and have what is called doubly serrated edges.
Discussion: This tree is well known to campers and other outdoor types, as its oil-filled bark is an excellent fire starter. Its oil-filled bark burns hot and readily, even when wet. The tree in our yard doesn’t quite seem old enough to begin flaking too heavily, but I have been on the lookout for any shed bark near the house.
Paper birch is also famous for being traditionally built by the Algonquin people in Canada, as the bark was waterproof and easily to manipulate and stitch.
The paper birch is one of several “pioneer species”, meaning that it is often one of the first flora to occur in disturbed areas such as areas that have been clear cut or have been burned out. They are a popular food choice among deer and moose, and porcupines love to eat the inner bark. The seeds make a great food source for birds and rodents, and it is a popular tree for cavity nesting birds. It is apparently a favorite tree for sapsuckers, as the sap is relatively sweet and abundant.