When you think of a paper birch tree, you normally think of those beautiful swaying white ornamental trees that grow in residential lawns. You may think of the colorful stands of birch with yellow leaves often photographed in full fall regalia. But if you really think about it, you rarely see a big, gnarly, old white birch. They never get huge, not like an old oak or redwood, but there are some good-sized ones out there. They just aren’t that common.
On average a paper (white) birch tree can live 70-80 years and grow to be about 60 Feet tall. Rarely an old birch can grow up to 3 feet in diameter! Most come and go before they ever get to any real size. One of the oldest known white birch trees is over 240 years old, and the widest I could confirm was over 3m in girth*. If you want to see birch of any real substance in the midwest you pretty much have to find a slice of protected old growth forest somewhere along the shores of Lake Superior. (We’ve seen some big ones in Michigan’s UP!) So with that background in mind, it was quite a surprise to find a fairly large birch tree right here in Devil’s Lake State Park.
Although we couldn’t measure it at the time, this old paper birch is clearly good-sized (See the picture to the left.) and has been around for a while. Knowing the park history and the location of the tree, it’s really quite amazing that any tree, let along this one, was never lost to logging or removed to make way for the railroad or a farm field. Yet it’s still here today, slowly being swallowed up in a bramble of maple and invasive buckthorn.
The future for this old birch is questionable. White Birch trees tend to fare best in wide open areas. They are often the first trees to arrive after a fire and are soon pushed out by later comers. This old birch probably got its start after a spring fire some hundred plus years ago in what was once an open, wet prairie at the foot of the Baraboo hills. There along with its siblings it grew for decades until other trees and shrubs began to push in and compete. Over time most of the birch in this area died away leaving just a few standing surrounded in a very different environment than the one they once grew up in. Now, even this old birch is surrounded and struggling for its share of resources. However, for this old birch, there is hope.
Next spring the park is planning a prescribed burn in the area of the park where we discovered this tree. As you know, prescribed burns help to kill off invading species and help to rejuvenate the soil. There’s a pretty good chance this burn could give our old birch tree a fresh start and allow it to continue to grow larger in the coming decades. Who knows? Maybe in another hundred years or so our old birch tree could go for the record! At the very least it can keep up with its cousins in the great white north…