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Birch Genus: Betula and Alder Genus: Alnus An article from "The Trees Of Old England" by Leo H.Grindon
Birch Genus: Betula and Alder Genus: Alnus by Leo Hartley Grindon; Previously a Lecturer on Botany at the Royal School of Medicine, Manchester. Author of "Life: its Nature, Varieties, and Phenomena;" "British and Garden Botany;" " The Little Things of Nature;" "Echoes in Plant and Flower Life," and others.
Birch Genus: Betula and Alder Genus: Alnus A Sketch of the aspects, associations and uses of Birch Genus: Betula and Alder Genus: Alnus which constitute the forests and give effect to the scenery of Great Britain.
It is curious that two trees of physiognomy so entirely different as the birch and the alder should nevertheless correspond closely in the minutiae of botanical structure. Not that the instance is a solitary one, or without many parallels. What more unlike, for example, than the Pyrola and the heather the former a little herbaceous plant, the lily-of-the-valley of the seaside sand-hills; the heather a tough and wiry undershrub of wastes and mountain solitudes. At the close of an autumn evening, the Pyrola (which often mingles with the grass-ofParnassus) exhales an odour so powerful that by this alone may be found the beautiful white forests which come of its plenty, even did they not gleam in the distance like drifts of summer snow; and in this particular we get the first suggestion of a possible affinity with the heather tribe, one of which, called Clethra arborea, seems surely to have been scented from the same fountain. Examined in the light, the individual blossoms show likeness again to those of the Clethra; the Clethra in turn discloses points of affinity with the heather; and at last we find that all these plants are but varied utterances of a single idea. The same may be said of the Parnassia and the golden-saxifrage; of clover and the sweetpea : of the cinquefoil, the strawberry, and the rose. Where externals seem to betoken total unlikeness, if not absolute isolation, presently, on asking of the innermost heart, there dawns upon us the sense of a most exquisite consanguinity. It is the old, old, deathless fable of Proteus over again the "transformation" scene which no pantomime can ever compete with.
While curious, accordingly, that the birch and alder should be so unlike in their intimate likeness, it is curious only in the same sense that a thousand different melodies are all delightful. The variety and the novelty are not the only charm; that which enchants is the native and inalienable sweetness and feeling, and which holds us as deeply when long familiar as in the beginning. It is a grand secret in the art of estimating things aright, that the best is not that which fascinates on the first view, but that which waxes lovelier the longer it abides with us, or we with it. The "curious" things in nature are not, as some weakly imagine, the casualties, the anomalies, or the extremes; but those dear old ways which God has daily manifested ever since the morning-stars sang together, and which coustitute a large portion of the alphabet through which, by reverent watching, we may gather insights into the Divine order and munificence. To the earnest seeker after truth, a cowslip is more precious than a twin-apple or a triple hazel-nut, strange vagaries as they are; the "common things" of the world will for ever keep the firmest hold upon human interest and human affections, just as domestic love, new and fragrant every morning, is better, and better esteemed, than the largess of a prince.
The character by which the birch and alder are brought together is found in the fruit. While they correspond with the rest of the amentiferous class of forest-trees in producing their male flowers in catkins, they differ from all (except the featheryseeded willows and poplars) and agree between themselves, in having the female flowers developed in catkins likewise. Generically, the alders are distinguished by their hard and woody fruit-catkins, the scales of which are persistent; while in the birches the scales fall asunder, crumbling, when ripe, beneath the pressure of the fingers, and liberaling myriads of little flat and seed-like fruits, everyone of which is provided with lateral wings. The fruits of the alders, on the other hand, are wingless. Besides this, in the alders many female catkins stand side by side, or at all events near together, the peduncle being branched; while in the birches the female catkins are always solitary. Altogether, there are of these interesting trees some sixty or seventy species. They grow in the woods and upon the mountains of Europe, northern Asia, and the Himalayahs, extending to Peru and Columbia, and even into the antarctic regions, where, however, as in the extreme north, they become reduced to the condition of diminutive shrubs. Three species are indigenous to Great Britain the common or silver birch, the dwarf birch, and the common alder. The first and last, like most of the race, are esteemed for their pictorial effect in landscape; the dwarf birch is interesting on account of its littleness, the leaves being no larger than silver pennies.* (* Under special circumstances, the dwarf birch will reach the height of twenty feet, but it never becomes a tree in substance.) Alders prefer wet soil, whence they are frequent adjuncts of the stream and riverside; birches prefer ground that is dry, and hence become a great embellishment of declivities and hill-sides, as well known to all who have stood face to face with the grandeur of the highlands. Here, too, like the Osmunda, they often creep down to the edge of the loch.
The silver birch, Betula alba, is known even to the most incurious observer, being distinguished from every other tree by the shining whiteness of the bark; it is remarkable also for the extreme tenuity of its twigs, which in the variety called pendula, droop so elegantly, and give an air of such charming grace and modesty to the tree, combined with the expression of a tender and high-souled melancholy, that it has been well named the "lady of the woods." Certainly no tree familiar to the eye in northern temperate latitudes presents a spectacle more consummately soft and delicate. The mimosas and jacarandas of the tropics may rival it perhaps in lace-like transparency; and there are many glorious trees of silvered foliage, such as the oleaster, which stand on a par with it as regards gloss, when illuminated by the sunshine. But take it all in all, even in the presence of these illustrious rivals from the tropics, to the birch, wherever it stands, will probably be awarded the foremost place in admiration. The marvellous beauty of the tree is, after all, seen better in winter than in summer. Not until the branches have denuded themselves and the various denizens of the woodlands stand like the goddesses before Paris on Mount Ida, are the matchless symmetry and proportions, the whiteness and the queenly figure, brought out in their incomparable perfection. So viewing them, we cannot but feel how great an auxiliary in the promotion of human delight is this self-same winter, which, by thus constraining the woods to disrobe themselves, shows lines and attitudes of beauty which in summer are totally lost in the maze of foliage. Clothing, that makes so beautiful, how often is it the veil of a beauty still more transcending! Induitur, formosa est : exuitur, ipsa forma!
In the depth of winter, wherever birches have been liberally mingled with other trees in hill-side plantations, the effect from the valley below is often unique. Far aloft, they lift up their white and shining fabric, not so much like the bleached skeletons some have compared them to, as, after the manner of the constellations, speaking not of death but of life; not of darkness and desolation, but of that welcome lull in the too-vivid brightness which by day prevents the beholding, and gives to night a greater glory than belongs even to bright noon. Very beautiful, too, is the spectacle of the birches when, by reason of advancing autumn, they begin to reveal themselves in the recesses of the glen. Let us look for them. The sun shines bright and kindly, and glows in rich red-brown on the bare pillars of the far-away Scotch firs. On every hand linger pretty relics of the summer, waifs of ivory meadow-sweet, overworn grasses, reluctant to wither, and foxglove bells in twos and threes where once were tall spires of nodding purple; the scabious and the golden-rod are holding festival; the ferns have unrolled their last leaflets of braid and spangle; the heather is fast uncovering its bosom to the bees; ah, see! there are berries, too, upon the vitis idcea, and beautiful round galls, like unripe cherries, upon the oak-leaves; and here, too, is the nipplewort, covered over with little green seed-baskets, and that goes on blossoming so cheerfully till Christmas. A fair and pleasant plant is this; the blossoms open only to the sunshine, yet it can sustain the rain and cold, and though the frost may blanch it, the form remains to the last. Now we wind along the shady pathway by the river, and list its sweet babble, that never ceases, winter or summer, marking too, as we go, the great stones that tell of the vehemence of the flood that so wasted the banks. Are the birches down here ? I think not; we are too near the water's edge. Try among those beautiful green crowds upon the upper ridges, that seem asleep in the amber sunlight, with above them that glorious inheritance men call the sky, today blue as turquoise or forget-me-not, and islanded with molten silver. Surely we shall have them now! Ah, yes. Here spread those beautiful white arms; here sweep the leafy tresses; let the stream rejoice in its alders; the birch is for the uplands, where it shall receive the first caresses of the morning, and b e a brightness again when the stars twinkle, and Endymion is bathed in the light of his love.
The preference of the birch for a dry and airy situation, combined with the matchless delicacy of its figure, and its perfect penetrability by the light, well adapt it also for the central ornament of a lawn or large grass plot; and beautiful is it, in the calm of a summer's evening, to watch the bright round moon shine through it undimmed. In old trees the bark is apt to be very much broken up, and there come great patches of corrugated blackness, which serve, however, by the contrast, to make the silver that remains still more conspicuous. In other cases these tarnished parts become green with the incipient growth of mosses. When covered up from the corroding influences of the atmosphere, the sheen of the bark seems indestructible, as shown when lumps of ancient birch-tree wood are dug out of peat-bogs. In Cheshire, it happens frequently that when the peat-diggers penetrate to near the bottom, they come upon boughs and branches, with twigs innumerable, the interior or ligneous portion brown and decayed, but the vesture as white and perfect as when the tree was alive and thriving. The occurrence of these remains shows the birch to be one of our genuine aborigines. Where now the peat-bog lies in black and wet sterility (except for that brief period in high summer when it is enlivened by the silver tassels of the cotton-grass, or the golden spikes of the asphodel), once upon a time, and not so very remotely, probably not much more than 1500 or 2000 years ago, there was either marsh-land or forest, the floor of the latter being what is now the solid ground underneath the bog. The accumulation of water, and the gradual decay of the plants, laid the foundation of the bog; such trees as grew there would soon fall, and, with the gradual development of the bog-vegetation above, their remains would become buried where we now find them. There is another curious feature in the bark of the birch which deserves notice, namely, its aptitude to split into extremely thin laminae or sheets. The highest development of this property is seen in one of the North American species, thence called Betula papyracea, or the " paperbirch." The layers of bark are so broad, so smooth, and so tough withal, that they form an admirable natural paper, and will allow of being written upon almost as easily as manufactured material, the only drawback being that the colour is light brown. The thicker portions of the bark of this singular tree are wrought by the native Indians of New Brunswick into toys, models of canoes, etc., as well as boxes, the former often ornamented with the quills of the American porcupine, and with the dyed hair of the moose-deer. One of the Himalayan species of birch, which men of science have agreed to call by its native name, Betula Bhojpatra, yields a similarly-laminated bark. The Sanscrit name of this bark, which is used for corresponding purposes, is bhoorja, and hence, in all likelihood, comes our word "birch." Such an etymology is strictly in accordance with that of "poplar," named above, and with several others, and indicates in a pleasing manner the migration from Central Asia westwards of the progenitors of the races of modern Europe. One other circumstance in the physiognomy of the birch is found very frequently to attract attention. It happens in this tree that there is often an arrested or impaired development of some portion of the buds. The consequence is that dense bushes of short twigs are produced, concealed when the leaves are open, but in winter very conspicuous, resembling deserted crows' nests, and often occurring to the number of twenty or thirty in a single tree. In Scotland these odd developments are termed "witches' knots."
The leaves of the birch are, as a rule, smaller than those of any other British tree in which the outline is of the same character. The " small-leaved elm " is the only other in which the dimensions are so limited. Yet upon very young trees, and more especially upon those luxuriant and vigorous sideshoots which start from the stumps of old trees that have been cut down, they are often of incredible size. The outline varies a good deal, changing from ovate to almost triangular; but there is always a sharp point, and the margins are always serrated. The catkins make their appearance very early in the season, the males starting from the extremities of the twigs, and growing in pairs, so as to give the idea of little V's, until fully expanded, which is simultaneously with the opening of the leaves, when they droop elegantly, and in vast profusion, a female catkin ordinarily accompanying every male, but so small as almost to elude observation. The males are light brown, nearly two inches in length, and pendulous; the females are green, variegated with the crimson stigmas, and generally erect or nearly so. The age attained by the birch, is of course not so considerable as that of trees of greater girth and robustness; the maximum stature would seem to be fifty or sixty feet. No mention of the tree is made in Scripture, nor does it appear to have attracted the notice of the classical poets, a fact explained perhaps by its comparatively rare occurrence in southern Europe, where moreover it is found only in mountain fastnesses.
Birch Genus: Betula and Alder Genus: Alnus An article from "The Trees Of Old England" continued...
Birch Genus: Betula and Alder Genus: Alnus
The Alder possesses none of the lady-like charms of the birch; as an invaluable ornament of riverscenery, it stands, however, quite on a level with the willow. No tree is more easily told; the broken, or torn, or cut inside of the stem and branches, though whitish when growing, very soon acquires a peculiar reddish colour, while the leaves are differently shaped from any other. Ordinarily the leaves of trees possess a point, more or less attenuated, owing to the onward push of the midrib. But in the alder the extremity of the leaf is absolutely pointless, and there is frequently a little tendency to a sinus or inward curve, resembling a bay on a coast-line. This gives the leaf an exceedingly broad and almost circular character. While young, the twigs and leaves are excessively clammy, whence the appropriate name Alnus glutinosa. The darkness of the green is another feature by which they may be recognised. That which is most noticeable in the tree is perhaps the beautiful aspect it holds when in flower. The catkins are very numerous, large, and of a deep rich brownish-red colour; coming out long before the leaf-buds expand, they are displayed, like those of poplars, to the highest perfection, and gently moving to the breeze, seem like legions of caterpillars, a circumstance even more striking in some of the American kinds. Then in autumn we have a condition more pleasing yet. At this season, upon most individuals that have reached maturity, may be seen standing side by side, the representatives of three distinct and successive seasons of growth. Many of the black and emptied seed-catkins of the preceding year still cling to the twigs; abundance of the fat green seed-catkins of the current year, resembling clusters of little fir-cones, are within reach; and upon every branch there is promise of the season to come, that is to say, of the following spring, in the shape of rudimentary stamen-catkins. Many trees give notice thus long beforehand of the activity contemplated for the year to follow; but it is in the alder alone that we have all these seasons, the past, the present, and the future, so beautifully associated. The phenomenon is one of so much the more interest from its reminding us once again how far back lie the beginnings of things! In April, we say, Behold the spring! But the alder was on the alert in March, in February, at Christmas! yea, long back in the old year, while the farewell-summer was in blossom, and the nuts were barely ripe! It forms a beautiful picture of the incessant recurrence of life upon death; before the aged have departed, the young are rising up to take their place.
The uses of the alder are not confined to its landscape effects and its significance. The leaves afford a brown dye, indicated by their rapidly changing to this colour when laid between papers to dry for the herbarium; and if we are to believe Virgil, it was of alder wood that mankind constructed the first ships; at all events the first record of ship-building after the time of Noah's ark, is that well-known line - Tune alnos primum fluvii sensere cavatas.
The alder is mentioned also by Homer, under the name of clethra (now applied to the fragrant flowering-shrub mentioned above), but apparently not elsewhere. The wood has the valuable property of resisting the action of water, whence it is of great commercial value for the construction of piles for bridges, etc., as in the celebrated arch of the Eialto at Venice, which is said to owe its stability to the use of this alone. In France, great numbers of the wooden shoes, there called "sabots," are also manufactured from the wood of the alder. In stature this tree rises to the height of fifty or sixty feet; in profile, when well grown, it is broad-headed and somewhat oak-like.
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