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Judy Isacoff
‘Betula alleghaniensis,’ or yellow birch.

NATURE’S TURN: Birch trees seed the new year; farmers feed seasonal favorites

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By Monday, Jan 1, 2018 Farm and Table 1

January 1 – 14, 2018

‘Betula alleghaniensis’–Britton, yellow birch. Photo: Gary Fewless

Mount Washington — See birch-tree seeds scattered on snow to know the promise of new life at the birth of the new year. Like soaring birds and tiny airplanes, the beige bracts–bits of birch cones–show up on the bright white rug that covers the forest floor and brushy landscapes. Released seeds that look like specks of wheat germ accompany the bracts–or scales–of the disintegrated birch cones.

‘Betula papyrifera’–Britton, paper birch/white birch. Photo: Gary Fewless

Yellow birch, with its glistening golden bark that lifts and curls like paper birch, and black birch, also known as sweet or cherry birch, are mainstays of our Berkshire landscape. The various common names of the latter tell us to look for black bark with horizontal lines like that of cherry trees–and that the trees have sweet sap. Wild-foods author Euell Gibbons named black birch “the woodland fountain” for its copious sap flow in springtime. After maple-tapping time, black birch trees may be tapped and their sap boiled for syrup or fermented into beer. Both yellow and black species have a delicious winterberry flavor. To make birch tea, once you’ve positively identified the trees, prune twigs and steep in boiling water. Refer to https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/species/betula/lenta/

Gray birch samaras and scales. Photo: Judy Isacoff

‘Betula alleghaniensis’–Britton, yellow birch. Photo: Gary Fewless

White birch is uncommon locally. Gray birch, usually seen as a small pioneer tree, is often mistaken for white. Tree identification by bark, twig and fruit is as straightforward in wintertime as it is to distinguish by leaves in other seasons. The New England Wildflower Society offers complete reference materials at https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org (see specific “Go Botany” links below).

Coming indoors, the best place to botanize for edibles is at farmers’ markets in both Great Barrington and Pittsfield Saturday, Jan. 13 (see “Opportunities to Participate,” below, for details including several additional winter markets). At Berkshire Grown’s December market, I was drawn to the mammoth Brussels sprouts surrounding farmer Kate Pike of White Goose Gardens, located at Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton (see photo). Harvested a week before going to market with many still in the field, White Goose Gardens offers meticulously cultivated and harvested vegetables at both the Berkshire Grown and Downtown Pittsfield farmers markets. Oh! The Brussels sprouts are ready to eat! See you next time with the rest of the story.


Kate Pike, farmer, White Goose Gardens. Dec. 16, 2017. Photo: Judy Isacoff




Opportunities to Participate

Indoor Winter Farmers’ Markets
Berkshire Grown, Great Barrington: Jan. 13 & Feb. 17
Downtown Pittsfield Farmer’s Market: Jan. 13, Feb. 10, March 10

Educational Workshops for Growers

Encountering Nature and the Nature of Things: “Practicing a Science of Phenomena,” March 15 application deadline

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  1. Carol McGlinchey says:

    Thank you, Judy, for your wonderful and informative columns in 2017. The photos and text are always so interesting. Looking forward to learning more from you in 2018

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