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The Magnificent Betula

We all have personal associations with many things. A time-honoured recipe or indoor plant handed down from one generation to the next. The lasting friendship and faithfulness of a dog or appreciation of a favourite tree.

Today, I’m devoting most of my words on this Grainews page to Betula, or the birch tree family.

I can recall from early grade school, committing many verses to memory. Remember that poem called Trees? It was even put to music as a song. A few words are:

“I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as a tree,

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed,

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast,

A tree that may in summer wear, A nest of robins in her hair. A tree that looks to God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray.”

Perhaps poetry helped steer me as a songwriter and grow-it poet today.

AN EMAIL RECEIVED

… from Yorkton, Saskatchewan, on December 16 last year prompted me to answer it here. Hopefully other Grainews readers will benefit as well.

Dear Ted:

“We have a 25-year-old weeping birch in our front yard with a trunk about 12 inches in diameter at the base. We have just come through a severe cold snap the last couple of weeks with temps. at -30C and lower. This morning we noticed a split about a half-inch wide in the bark of this tree, from ground level up four or five feet. It appears to be a half-inch deep or more. Any suggestions? We hate to lose this tree.”

Sincerely, Ray Kostenuk

WEATHER-RELATED INJURIES

… to trees can be quite common. Take last fall for example. Trees did not have a proper shutting-down process. We had warm-weather days, followed by deep, freezing temps. and then it got warm again. In many instances leaves still had not totally dropped. This anomaly or irregularity creates problems for those trees that are not native to a given area or region. Damage occurs because they are only partially shut down and not yet prepared for winter ahead.

Weeping birch (Betula pendula) is not native to this area. They originate from Europe, making them even more vulnerable to weather-related injuries.

Soggy snowfall and ice storms can bring weakest trees of the bunch to their knees. Cracks such as Ray Kostenuk describes have even appeared in the past on native ash trees. How did they cope? During the following spring they were basically able to close and heal over on their own for the most part.

If given an opportunity, there’s a good chance Ray’s weeping birch will heal itself too.

Trees are like gardeners, farmers and most people. They are resilient. They want to live. They have the will to live. When given a chance to recuperate, there’s a strong likelihood that any tree inflicted with a weather-related injury will heal itself. Wait until it leafs out in spring to better assess and determine the severity of damage done.

ALL BIRCH ARE MAGNIFICENT

… especially if given a good start at time of planting. They do respond with gratitude. From one year to the next, it’s marvellous to watch a young whip eventually grow into a superbly proportioned tree. Stalwart limbs that are firmly affixed to the trunk, outstretch like arms holding on to necklaces of cascading leaves, dangling loosely on fine-textured branches.

Birch trees prefer a lighter, sandy soil but do adjust to a variety of garden soils, provided the site is sunny. Alkaline soils having a pH above 6.5 can develop signs of iron deficiency. Leaves may appear chlorotic with uncharacteristic colouring. Treat with a product such as Iron Green by Schultz at the first sign of pale-green sickness to restore deep, healthy colour.

TREATMENT OPTIONS

If desired, wounds may be spray painted with water-based pruning paint, formulated to act as a protective barrier against moisture, disease and insects. Another option is pruning paste that acts as an antiseptic dressing on damaged surfaces. This prevents sap loss and seals out disease. These products are available at many garden centres under various brand names such as Wilson.

Let me say that anyone who gets 25 years out of a weeping birch is doing pretty darn good. However, weeping birch can live to 40 years, if soil and nutrient conditions are met and it gets access to adequate moisture. Ideal growing situations don’t always exist one year to the next and a tree can weaken. Assess and assist your birch tree annually. A weeping birch in a weakened state of health also becomes vulnerable to bronze birch borer attack. This pest is attracted to it and starts attacking from the top, then works its way down inside and the tree begins to die. Watching a birch succumb to borers can be heart wrenching. Tree lovers may be hard pressed to find weeping birch trees anymore, but replacements are available.

I have no treatment to offer other than go to your nursery and seek out a selection of paper birch named Prairie Dream. It’s reported to have some resistance to bronze birch borer. A columnar selection of Asian white birch named Dakota Pinnacle is a new listing for 2010. Attributes include bark as white as chalk, dense foliage and resistance to bronze birch borer. For more info go to www.jeffriesnurseries.com.

YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKERS

… are highly attracted to birch trees. They can quickly perforate birch bark, slurp up the sap and leave behind great weeping sores. Eventually, they keep moving higher up the trunk from bottom to top. As sapsuckers drill, they continue to leave ugly pepper-holed blotches. They can also demolish mountain ash.

I’ve tied tomatoes to stakes with used pantyhose. Now here’s another reason to save them. It’s a home remedy to counteract the presence and activity of sapsuckers. Wrap used pantyhose around the trunk of each birch tree, starting from the soil line and continuing upward for two metres (about six feet). Several pantyhose may be needed, depending on tree size. For whatever reason, sapsuckers will usually no longer bother your birch trees, but then, only you shall know for sure.

LAST CHANCE TO ENTER

Singing Gardener draws are coming up soon for some garden prizes ranging from credit voucher gift certificates to grapevine plants and seed potatoes. Send your name and mailing address to:

SINGING GARDENER Draws, c/o Grainews,

1666 Dublin Ave.,

Winnipeg, Man. R3H 0H1

HE MAY BE ABLE TO DRINK BEER

… but this guy ain’t no gardener. A fellow named Eric is driving home after downing a few cool ones at the local pub. He turns at an intersection and sees an evergreen in the middle of the road, so swerves to avoid it. Eric barely goes half a block farther and realizes there’s another evergreen directly in his path. His drive home is causing him to veer from left to right in an effort to avoid all the trees. Moments later, he sees red and blue lights behind him and hears a police siren. An officer approaches Eric’s car, checks his driver’s licence and registration and asks: What do you think you’re doing? Eric begins to tell the story of the evergreens in the middle of the road. Before he can finish, the officer stops him and says: For heaven’s sake sir … that’s your air freshener.

This is Ted Meseyton the Singing Gardener and Grow-It Poet from Portage la Prairie, Man. May food for thought and ideas I put on paper be helpful, make a difference and motivate gardeners. If you don’t come back, I have no readers. Gardeners and farmers are special people who put food on the table for millions of Canadians. Think of it as true service from the heart because you’ve chosen to make a difference. My email address is [email protected]

About the author

Columnist

Ted Meseyton

This is Ted Meseyton the Singing Gardener and Grow-It Poet from Portage la Prairie, Man. I salute all gardeners and farmers who help make our world a little safer and more ecologically balanced, and who toil to provide health-giving produce to others who cannot produce their own. It takes all sorts to make a world. One half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives. The best physicians are Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet and Dr. Merryman.

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