February 14, 2008
River birch in February
These branches belong to the river birch I planted in my front yard last May. I've planted all kinds of trees and bushes since we moved into this house eight years ago, and each tree reminds me of a particular spring, of feelings associated with the ritual of planting a tree. Or more accurately, the trees represent the introspective thoughts that I have each February, which is when I begin to tire of the cold weather and, looking forward to the warm gardening days of May, began planning what I want to plant that year. When I planted this river birch last May, I was thinking about a friend who was going through a difficult time, a friend whose life was about to unravel in dramatic ways.
I chose to plant a river birch (betula nigra) because river birches are survivors.
I've seen river birches flattened to the ground under ice storms, branches glistening and heavy to the point of breaking, and then I've watched those trees spring back, unharmed, in afternoon sun. The trees may look fragile, but those flexible trunks can handle stormy weather. The high winds that send the scotch pines toppling down don't hurt a river birch at all. I've seen river birches growing in heavy clay soils, which many trees can't handle, and I've seen them survive in standing water, at the edges of lots or streams.
The bark of the river birch, as the tree matures, will curl up and pull away, like a snake shedding its skin in a ritual of transformation. The rough edges of the bark, the scars and torn pieces, and the vulnerable pink smoothness beneath make each tree unique and beautiful.
This tree grows near my driveway, the first thing I see when I arrive home at the end of a day. During the hot months of July and August, I unraveled a long hose from the side of my house and watered the new river birch, letting the spray touch the slender branches, the green leaves. Standing in the dappled, shifting shade, I held the nozzle of the hose to the ground until the roots were completely saturated. During October, I watched as the leaves turned bright yellow and fell quickly to the ground, leaving only thin, bare branches.
In the snowy February yard, the tree looks small compared to the woods around us, the branches still just twigs, really. We've got weeks and weeks of snow ahead of us, too, that heavy wet snow that comes from fronts moving across the great lakes, the stormiest part of the winter. Ice and snow will bend the tree close to the ground, testing the flexibility and strength of the limbs.
But I have no doubt that this tree will survive. And when spring comes, and the green leaves began to come out again, the tree will grow anywhere from three to five feet, a rapid maturation. In only a few years, the tree will stretch higher than my house.
Because that is what river birches are most known for. Growth.
Posted by jo(e)