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Bog birch is the only member of the Betula genus on Prince Edward Island which is distinctively a shrub. Generally having multiple stems, it rarely grows over 10 feet (3 m) in height. It shares many similarities with the rest of the birches; simple leaves, alternating buds, and catkins. Like all young native birches, bog birch has shiny reddish-brown bark with small white spots called lenticels. However, it never develops a change in bark colour as it matures like white, grey or yellow birch. Its leaves are round or oval, often leathery, and with rounded teeth. The whole shrubs sports delicate cylindrical flower clusters in May or June which are reddish and 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) long.
Bog birch lives up to its name, being found in acidic, boggy areas. It needs full sun to thrive and is usually surrounded by plants with similar tolerances—willow, rose, Labrador tea, eastern larch, and black spruce.
Birch seed is grouped in cone-like strobiles and can be collected by hand in late September through to November. Pick when the strobiles are fully developed and break apart quite readily.
Birch seed is easy to clean. Simply rub the strobiles over a screen or strainer that will allow the seed to drop through and catch the bracts.
Seeds need a cold period before planting, so they can be stored in a fridge with a small amount of damp peat or potting soil. In the spring, sprinkle the mixture on top of a seedbed, but do not cover with soil. Birch seed needs light for germination but doesn’t like to dry out. A slatted table (providing 50% shade) and regular light mistings provide optimal conditions for germination. Once the seeds start to grow, you can add some fine mulch to the bed to retain moisture.
As with the other birches, bog birch provides food for many species of birds. Due to its rarity in PEI, data on local feeding habits surrounding this shrub haven’t been collected, but we do know that birch seed are eaten by American goldfinch, pine siskin, dark-eyed junco, blue jay, and chickadees and sparrows. Often loaded with seed, and with dense, tight growth, bog birch is sure to be providing food and nest sites for a variety of birds.
Areas of Usage:
Bog birch loves full sun and will tolerate boggy and marshy conditions. They can be found in bogs and wet areas. It can be excellent in wetlands, swampy meadows and in sunny riparian zones. It is also versatile around the house or cottage. Although bog birch naturally grows in wet areas, proper placement, planting, and mulching can help it thrive; the drier the site, the less wind bog birch will tolerate. Boasting beautiful spring flowers, shallow roots, and a compact shape, this rare shrub is more versatile than its name suggests.
Bog birch is one of our rarest plants and all efforts should be made to conserve this species. It can still be found growing in bogs, although many of the bogs where it may have historically been found have suffered serious disturbance. Fortunately, wetland alterations have been greatly reduced since the implementation of the Province’s Wetland Conservation Policy in 2003, resulting in the functional protection of the remaining bog birch habitat in the province.