Paper birches are unmistakable as far as trees go. With their white bark peeling in large sheets there really is not other species it could be mistaken for. The paper birch is wide spread across the boreal forest and they are easily found down in the Whitemud Ravine. With its thin bark and readily available sap the tree is a favourite among the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Among First Nations the Paper Birch is used to make objects such as canoes, snowshoes, tipis, baskets and paper. It also has medicina al properties and the birch sap can be collected and boiled down to make syrup, wine, and beer. So it turns out that this tree is quite versatile. The peeling bark is excellent as tinder and I always collects bark sheets when hiking and if I know I will be making a fire later on. You just want to be careful not to harvest too much bark from a single tree as removing large chunks of bark could damage or even kill the tree.
It was a sunny and beautiful morning as I was making my way along the trail in Whitemud Ravine. Something, however, was not right. I was not able to put my finger on it, but you could hear. Like droplets of a light morning rain on the leafs of the canopy. Except, it was not raining, the sky was blue and the sun was rising. I was not sure what to make of it. I was not imagining the sound. It was coming from a large paper birch at the edge of the trail. I carefully scanned the trunk, branches and canopy of the birch, but that did not provide any clues to the source of the sounds. Was I loosing my marbles? Had my dogs stopped barking? Were the wheels turning, but the hamster gone? Was I going nuttier than a hoot owl? I hesitated and slowly walked closer to the birch. The sound was still there but still no clue. I was dumbfounded. I held out my hand, like I was half expecting to feel rain droplets on my hand…, except it was definitely not raining…, except, that is when I felt it. Something landed in the palm of my hand. Something tiny and light as a feather. As I zoomed in my eyes on the palm of my hand, there it was. A seed hull from the paper birch. What happened then was remarkable, it was like my eyes and my brain recalibrated their search image. As I raised my eyes I could now see them, thousands upon thousands of seed hulls and samaras raining down from the paper birch canopy high above me. I could feel them land on my face as I looked up. The seed hulls are like shells surrounding the actual seed, or samara. A samara is a fruit with thin wings. The maple “helicopter” seeds are perhaps the most well known samara, but many other species of trees have samaras as well, including birches, ashes and elms. The purpose of samaras and their paper thin wings is to disperse and help the plant to spread its offspring. It is curious how this tree was releasing a mass of samaras all at the same time. That is probably not just a coincidence and it begs the question what triggered the release of the seeds? Is it an environmental cue or do they all ripen simultaneously? So far, I have not been able to find any information about this phenomenon online.