Shall We Gather at the River (Birch)

This past week I spent my semi-annual couple of hours cleaning up the river birch tree in our front yard. Before I launch into my planned diatribe, let me quickly say that it is a lovely tree and was one of the selling points when we bought the house.

But that was before I began learning about river birches. At the time, I read several positive reviews of the trees, as well as seeing them praised on do-it-yourself shows on TV. Moderate size, easy to grow, interesting peeling bark, that kind of thing.

What nobody seemed to mention is that these easy to grow beauties are high maintenance and downright dangerous in the wrong spot.

During the summer, I have to scour the lawn underneath the tree for sticks and twigs that drop constantly from the canopy. They range in size from six inches to several feet long and are just big enough around that you shouldn’t hit them with your lawnmower. And just when you think you’ve picked up every twig, the wind blows and here come two or three more. After a big wind, the whole front yard downwind of the tree is littered.

At least once a year, I have to “limb” the tree, cutting off the lowest limbs. Over the growing season, the low limbs form a graceful downward arch, so that whip-like, pointy sticks are aimed right at the eyes of anyone walking under the tree. Because of its location, that means mostly me, as I pull our garbage can to the curb each week, usually after sundown.

Because the tree takes up a lot of water, each new cut drips like a leaky shower for an hour or so. What comes out looks like water, but it’s actually sticky tree sap. It’s clear but hard to get off, and the dirt that sticks to you makes for some interesting stains. The more limbs I have to trim, the more I have to bend and duck to avoid the drips.

The river birch is most at home in sandy soils near, you guessed it, rivers and streams. It is not well suited to the heavy clay soil from which my homestead was carved. Hence, the roots are shallow and tend to rise a little each year. The roots were safely underground when we bought the house five years ago, but now bumps and even bare roots now surround the trunk. It’s reached the point now that it’s difficult to roll my mower over some of the larger roots. By next year, I figure the blade will start slicing into some of the roots.

The roots also tend to wander ever outward and can crack foundations over time. Recently I read a magazine article that cautioned against planting a river birch any closer to your home’s foundation than 20 to 25 feet. I got out my tape measure — yep, it’s about 18 feet away. Not so close as to demand that I cut it down immediately, but close enough I look cautiously at the foundation when I go around that side of my house.

For now, I plan to tolerate the problems because the tree adds beautiful shade to my front yard. But if I ever plant another river birch, you can bet it will be closer to the river.

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