Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: The Survival of the Birch Beer Canoodle

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday August 28, 2007

A birch is about as exotic as a banana here, and maybe they’re both ubiquitous in people’s front yards for similar nostalgic reasons—or maybe instead because they’re so outrageous when you know where you are.  

They’re both thirsty, so it’s good to keep them in the well-watered zone of the garden. A cluster of birches looks natural with a patch of lawngrass and/or a fern, an understory flower or two. It doesn’t take acres to evoke the Eastern North American forests in their most tender-looking moods.  

By some standards, of course, birch is tough as nails. Most of the several birch species need plenty of water but other than that, they’re sturdy; they stand up just fine to New England, Alaskan, and Siberian winters and they’re resourceful enough to use as pioneer plants on “reclaimed” culm dumps and other mining scars. The sight of white-barked paper birches on a black anthracite spoilbank is one of those Proustian guilty pleasures for me. I know it’s devastation, but those trees look so starkly handsome I still have to smile.  

Lots of birches have tan or reddish bark and they’re generally good-looking too, but the emblematic birch, the one that gets photographed against blue-white snow or a brilliant green spring understory has white bark. Here, it’s usually the North American native paper or white birch (Betula papyrifera), gray birch (B. populifolia) in those postcard photos and the European white birch (B. pendula) in our gardens.  

This time of year, people often panic at the sight of blackened, soot-covered, and bug-riddled leaves on their birches. All the birch species I know of are susceptible to aphids, and aphid droppings—one of several such excretions called “honeydew” because they do in fact taste sweet—grow various kinds of mold and mildew readily, on the leaf surfaces and on any object beneath them.  

(That’s pretty much what’s going on with those poor beleaguered tuliptrees on University Avenue, by the way. Yes, they should be replaced, but a few at a time and not during nesting season please! It’s a shame: they’re beautiful trees but they’re really happier in a more lush situation like a lawn.)  

My earnest counsel about aphid-infested birches? Do nothing. The trees are deciduous and will drop their leaves in a month or two anyway, bugs and all. Meanwhile you have the ideal ladybird beetle nursery and that’s what you’ll want around next spring when the aphids return. Look at whatever leaves are in reach and see if you don’t have some of those ferocious black alligator-looking ladybeetle youngsters there. The kids eat more aphids than the adults do, as kids are wont. Cherish them. 

While I’m dishing advice and barking orders: I’ve notice that some people have the unsavory habit of topping their birches, cutting the top several feet of the tree right off. What’s up with that? Aside from destroying the natural grace of the tree, it’s slow murder, and what branches do arise from the mutilated trunk will be weakly attached—originating only from the edge of the trunk—and so prone to snapping off when they grow heavy enough to be more than twigs. Stop that right now.  

Aside from the Robert Frost poem about “a swinger of birches” and the birchbark canoe whose survival John McPhee eloquently celebrated, birches figure in our culture, or at least our décor, largely as a signifier of the demi-wilderness, the cabin in the woods that’s just a bit beyond dirt flooring, the sort of thing LL Bean touts. The elegant white bark gets used for picture frames and occasional furniture.  

Once upon a time it made paper, just as I thought it must when I was a kid. Historic “frontier” documents exist that are scrawled and signed on a wide strip peeled right off the tree. It seems irresistible for the sort of folks who write on living trees, too, as the “Fred + Chloe 4 ever” eventually becomes something like a keloid, black and prominent against the white, ready to embarrass Fred + Chloe’s kids unto the third generation. 

My own cultural madeline featuring birches—aside from making strictly decorative porridge and bread out of the ripe catkins to go with the mulberries we gorged on in summer—is birch beer. Cook’s Illustrated site www.cooks.com/rec has a recipe for real beer-type birch beer made with birch sap and yeast. What I remember, though, is a red soda somewhat like root beer but less heavy. Apparently it’s a Pennsylvania Dutch thing, judging by its distribution.  

My sister Ellen took a load of it along with a few pounds of garlic ring bologna and Utz’s potato chips down to Orlando a couple of weeks ago to celebrate her daughter’s graduation from nursing school. The exotic-or-nostalgic cuisine got an enthusiastic reception there. Now I’m wondering how well it would make it through the average airport.  

And I miss my sister, too. 


Photograph by Ron Sullivan. Birch trees in their unmangled natural form. These, like many trees this year, are showing early fall color. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Green Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section.