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Birch

To the Chipewyan People, the tree was called k’i; to the Cree, it was known by many names, among them wuskwi-atik or wāsk-wayahtik. To the French, it was bouleau blanc. In English, it is the white, or paper birch.

Birch trees, in particular white or paper birches, are common deciduous trees that grow across much of the open to dense woodland of the boreal forest, particularly in moist (but not flooded) areas. It is a small to medium sized tree that grows to an average height of fifteen metres (almost fifty feet), though occasionally birches can grow to twice this height. Birch trees typically have smooth bark that can range in colour from white to tan. Birch leaves are three to five centimetres long on average, with long pointed tips, and serrated edges.

Traditional Uses

Birchbark basket When the subject of traditional birch tree use comes up, the first image that comes to mind is a birchbark canoe. While admittedly this was one popular use of the tree by many northern Aboriginal Peoples, the birch could provide a great deal more than that. Strips of birchbark could also be formed into baskets, water buckets, and bowls. Larger strips of birchbark could be fashioned into roof shingles. A conical horn called a moose call could be made out of birchbark as well. This was used by hunters to imitate the mating call of a moose in order to attract the animals into firing range. Birchbark was often harvested from trees growing close to a body of water like a river or lake. The extra moisture in the tree made the bark more pliable than that found on trees growing in drier areas. Aside from bark, birch trees were a valued source of hardwood for construction, and this wood could be used in the building of sleds and snowshoes.

Birch trees were also a useful source of food. In the spring, birch trees could be tapped for sap that could be used to make a sweet syrup. Fourteen litres of birch sap, when boiled down, could yield about four litres of syrup. The inner bark of the tree could be a handy food source in the spring if no other food was available, while the leaves and root inner bark of the tree could be boiled to make a beverage.

 

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