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Boreal Birch: Art and Science in the Northern Forest
at the Alaska State Museum Nov. 4th 2011 - Jan. 14th 2012

Artist, Margo Klass
Artist, Kesler Woodward
Photographer, Barry McWayne
Scientist, Kimberley Maher

Gallery Entrance

Left: Clearwater River Lodge, Margo Klass

Birch brochure 2011 prepress (PDF)

Kimberley Maher: Birch — growing in the boreal forest

Birch is one of six types of trees that grow in the Alaskan boreal forest, or taiga. The circumpolar boreal forest, named after Boreas, the Greek god of the North Wind, is the largest terrestrial biome on earth and reaches across Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia. While the specific species composition varies in different regions, the boreal forest is characterized by low species diversity, cold soils and permafrost, precipitation that is mainly in the form of snow, and short, warm summers and long, extremely cold winters.
While many factors determine what plant species grow in a particular spot, one key influence is the successional stage of the forest. Succession is the gradual replacement of one dominant ecological community with another following an initial disturbance, culminating in a final stage of forest development. During the first stage of succession, grasses and herbs, like fireweed, are abundant. After that, typically the shrubs (i.e. willow and blueberry) take over as succession progresses to the second stage. In the third stage, deciduous trees such as birch form the forest canopy, and this stage usually dominates from about 45 years until around 150 years after the fire occurred. As ecological succession proceeds, and the final stage—the climax stage—is reached, spruces may take over and become the dominant species, though some birch may persist.

Left to right:

Portico, Margo Klass

Burnt and Blistered, Barry McWayne

Nineteen, Kesler Woodward

Promise, Kesler Woodward

Birch and Lichen, Barry McWayne

Rosy, Kesler Woodward

Left:

In Their Prime, Kesler Woodward

Right:

Spring Birch, Margo Klass

Left to right:

Birch Pelt, Margo Klass

Proud Birch, Kesler Woodward

Birch on Birch, Barry McWayne

Kimberley Maher: Types of birch in Alaska

While most people mistakenly refer to the all birch trees growing in Alaska as paper birch, nearly all birches growing in the Interior are Alaskan birch. Its scientific name is Betula neoalaskana. Alaskan birch is a different species than paper birch, Betula papyrifera, which grows throughout New England, the Great Lakes regions, and much of Canada. Paper birch has a limited presence in Alaska, around Haines. While Alaskan birch can hybridize with paper birch, Alaskan birch is a Beringian species and more closely related to Asian species than to paper birch. The difference between the two species is apparent at the chromosomal level — Alaskan birch is diploid (like humans, it has two sets of chromosomes) while paper birch is polyploid (it can have four, five, or six sets of chromosomes).
A third species of birch tree growing in Alaska is Kenai birch, Betula kenaica, which grows on the Kenai Peninsula. Kenai birch is smaller in size than the other two species of birch trees in Alaska. Kenai birch’s relationship to other birch trees is not well known. It is thought to be most closely related to paper birch.
In addition, three species of shrub birch also grow in Alaska: dwarf birch (Betula nana), resin birch (Betula glandulosa), and water birch (Betula occidentalis).

Birch Pelt, Margo Klass

Left:

Portico, Margo Klass

Burnt and Blistered, Barry McWayne

Kimberley Maher: Birch bark—a potential medicine cabinet

The bark of Alaskan birch is rich with secondary metabolites—chemical compounds in which the tree invests energy and resources to produce but are not necessary for the tree’s basic primary functions, such as growth, photosynthesis, and reproduction. Some secondary metabolites can provide a chemical defense against herbivores and pathogens. Alaskan birch produces papyriferic acid, a triterpene that reduces its palatability to snowshoe hares. To defend themselves against being browsed, parts of juvenile birch twigs can contain concentrations of papyriferic acid 25 times greater than mature birch twigs.
The outer, white bark of Alaskan birch contains chemical compounds that are recognized for their potential medicinal value: betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol. These chemicals show anti-viral, anti-microbial, and anti-carcinogenic properties, and their efficacy is being tested for a number of pharmaceuticals including treatments for herpes, HIV, and certain types of cancer.

Portico, Margo Klass

Left:

Burnt Birch #2, Barry McWayne

Top right:

Bound, Kesler Woodward

Top bottom:

Birch Portrait

Kimberley Maher: Birch sap—Aqua Vitae

To conserve resources when losing their leaves in the fall, birch trees store important nutrients in their roots over the winter; in the spring, birch use sap to transport these nutrients back up to where the new leaves develop. Like maple, birch trees can be tapped just before new leaves appear and the sap can be harvested. Birch sap is ~99% water and the remaining ~1% consists of small amounts of sugars, minerals, and other chemical compounds.
Historically, the sugar in birch sap is one of the first carbohydrates that people could harvest in the spring—available before any other food from the new growing season appears. A few companies in Alaska and Canada produce birch syrup by boiling down the sap, but the main use of birch sap throughout the boreal forest is as a health tonic. The sap is often referred to as “Aqua Vitae” or “Water of Life” and is part of traditional medicine of many northern countries including Japan, Korea, China, Finland, and Russia. People drink birch sap for general well-being and to treat an array of ailments including fatigue, gout, scurvy, and problems with the bladder or digestion.

Bright Birch, Barry McWayne

Artworks in the case left to right:

Birch Book 4 – Long Stitch Binding, Margo Klass

Birch Book 7 – Two section binding, Margo Klass

Birch Panels 1-4, Kesler Woodward & Margo Klass

Artworks on the wall:

Hard Rime on Young Birch, Barry McWayne

Color in the Forest, Kesler Woodward

Fall Birch, Margo Klass

Winter Birch, Margo Klass

Left:

Fall Birch, Margo Klass

Right:

Winter Birch, Margo Klass

Artwork on the wall:

Fall Birch, Margo Klass

Winter Birch, Margo Klass

Out of the Blue, Kesler Woodward;

Birch in Fog North of Fairbanks, Barry McWayne

Artworks in the case left to right:

Birch Book 5 – Coptic Binding, Margo Klass

Birch Book 3 – Coptic Binding, Margo Klass

Birch Book 1 – Coptic Binding, Margo Klass

Birch Book 7 – Two Section Binding, Margo Klass

Birch Book 4 – Long Stitch Binding, Margo Klass

Out of the Blue, Kesler Woodward

Kimberley Maher: A Pioneer Species

Birch is considered a pioneer species of the boreal forest because it is often one of the first trees to colonize an area after a disturbance—either historically after glaciers retreated or currently after a forest fire. Birch can reproduce vegetatively with stump sprouts, or birch can reproduce through seed. After a fire or cutting, birch will regenerate by sending out large numbers of new sprouts from stumps; while these new sprouts will self-thin, stump sprouting often leads to multiple stem trees. Like many other cloned organisms, birch originating from stem sprouts tend to mature earlier and decline at a younger age than trees originating from seed.
Birches produce vast numbers of seed. They are monoecious plants which means that they have separate male and female catkins on the same tree. Even though birch trees produce small, wind-dispersed seeds, the majority of birch seeds usually only travel 100-200 feet from the original seed source. The majority of seed dispersal occurs in the early winter, so seeds may then be carried further by wind across the snow surface or by snow melt runoff.

Birch in Fog North of Fairbanks, Barry McWayne

Case: text panels written by Kimberley Maher

Artworks on the wall left to right:

Wounded, Kesler Woodward

The White Rose, Barry McWayne

Burgeoning, Kesler Woodward

Young Ones, Kesler Woodward

Metallic Birch, Barry McWayne

Growing up, Kesler Woodward

Young Ones, Kesler Woodward

Artworks in the case:

Quilted Birch Screen, Margo Klass

Betula neoalaskana: The Alaskan Giving Tree, Kimberley Maher and Heather Kasvinsky

Artworks on the wall left to right:

Heavy Limbs, Barry McWayne

Rime-Weighted Birch –Chena Bike Trail, Barry McWayne

Matins, Margo Klass

Lost Birch, Kesler Woodward

Cache Creek One, Margo Klass

Birch Heart, Barry McWayne

Left to right:

Nenana Burn, Margo Klass

Intertwined, Kesler Woodward

Remnant, Barry McWayne

Burnt Birch Pair #2, Barry McWayne

Kimberley Maher: Birch as hosts: lichens and fungi

Lichen and fungi are both commonly found on birch trees, but these two organisms utilize birch very differently. Lichens are self-sufficient and use birch as scaffolding in order to be elevated off the forest floor and gain access to more sunlight; fungi, on the other hand, are parasitic and feed off the tree for their food, which weakens and decomposes the tree.
Lichens are symbiotic associations between a fungus and a photobiont. Lichenologist Trevor Goward said, “Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture." The photobiont can be either algae or cyanobacteria. The role of the photobiont is to photosynthesize and produce sugars to share with the fungus while the fungus provides the photobiont with protection and all the other nutrients it needs after absorbing them from the air.
Certain types of fungi colonize the interior of the birch trees and will decompose the lignin or cellulose of the wood as a food source. When a fungus is well established and ready to spread spores, it produces mushrooms that extend out of the tree. Mushrooms are analogous to flowers on a plant. Once mushrooms are visible, the tree is already heavily infected by the fungus. Certain types of fungus can cause spalting, or discoloration of the wood, which is desirable to some woodworkers. One type of fungus that is common on birch in Alaska is chaga (Inonotus obliquus); it’s a highly prized fungus in Russian and Asian folk medicine. It is prepared into a tea that is drunk as a treatment for a variety of ailments.

Nenana Burn, Margo Klass

Intertwined, Kesler Woodward

Front case:

Betula neoalaskana: The Alaskan Giving Tree, Kimberley Maher and Heather Kasvinsky

Birch Book 2 – Coptic Binding, Margo Klass

Kimberley Maher:Dendrochronology—what the trees can tell us

Dendrochronology is the study of annual tree rings in order to better understand both the environment and the growth of trees. While dendrochronologists have traditionally studied tree rings in conifers, new tree ring studies in Alaska have begun to focus on hardwoods, specifically birch. Tree rings are formed because trees grow outward and new cells are produced by the cambium that lies within the inner bark/phloem. The earlywood, the first cells to form at the beginning of the growing season, are larger and usually lighter in color than the latewood, the cells that form towards the end of the growing season. This alternation between earlywood and latewood is what forms tree ring patterns.
The age of boreal trees can be determined by counting their rings. Since annual growth depends on environmental conditions (e.g. weather, moisture availability, disturbances), the annual tree ring widths are a record of past climate conditions and events. Data from dendrochronology research allows scientists to recreate climate histories. If the climate history where the tree grows is already known (from weather records), scientists can correlate annual tree ring widths with temperatures and rainfall to predict how forests will react to future climate scenarios.

Left to right:

Heavy Limbs, Barry McWayne

Rime-Weighted Birch – Chena Bike Trail, Barry McWayne

Matins, Margo Klass

Left to right:

Metallic Birch, Barry McWayne

Growing up, Kesler Woodward

Evensong, Margo Klass

Kimberley Maher: Fire in the boreal forest

Fire is the largest natural disturbance in the boreal forest and is often ignited by lightning strikes in a spruce stand. Because of the high water content of their leaves, deciduous trees such as birch are more fire resistant than spruce and can slow down a forest fire—especially one that’s less severe. Birch trees planted around homes and forest communities can reduce the threat of wildfire damage.
Wildfire is integral to boreal forest plant communities and helps shape the forest. Fires in this forest type don’t burn evenly across the landscape, resulting in a mosaic with patches of plant communities in various ages and types. This variety of microhabitats increases wildlife diversity in the forest. Boreal plant communities are adapted to wildfire and some species even require fire to regenerate. For example, black spruce cones are semi-serotinous, so they are sealed with a wax that melts from the heat of a fire, allowing the cone to open and release seeds. Boreal forest communities also benefit from wildfire — fire reduces the thick organic duff layer, which promotes warmer soil and releases nutrients stored in the forest litter. Fire also reduces combustible fuel loads, preventing future large-scale fires.