Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Burly Birch March 20, 2009

Filed under: neighborhood gardens,trees — greenwalks @ 11:13 pm
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Walking down the street near my house the other day, I did a double-take when I saw this strangely-shaped white birch tree.

Birch burls IV

It’s a super tall tree, and it stands in front of one of the most stylishly maintained Craftsman houses in the neighborhood, so it made me wonder what was going on. Presumably, if the tree was diseased they would have taken care of it or had it taken down.

Birch burls

Looking more closely, I wondered if these could be burls, the poorly understood alterations in a tree’s regular growth pattern that produces giant, round protrusions that are intricately whorled inside.

There seems to be some difference of opinion among scientists as to how burls are formed. Some believe they are produced when some injury or other stress affects the bark; others think they are basically failed twig buds that result in an abnormal growth pattern. The spherical growth happens over a long period, in concurrence with the tree’s vertical growth, but the wood of the burl is much softer. Burls apparently have some similarities to cancer in humans, although in the case of trees the burls are not usually fatal. Woodworkers prize them for their unusualness, and anyone who has traveled Highway 1 through the Northern California redwood forests has encountered “redwood burl” shops selling everything from incredibly beautiful table slabs to awful tacky eagle/bear nightmares. I wonder what a birch burl would look like on the inside? This tree has them going all the way up.

White birch with multiple burls

Here is a short article explaining burls.

This PDF from the National Park Service is all about redwoods and their wacky burls.

Michael Combs is a craftsman who works with burls to produce treen, i.e. objects hewn from trees, but in his case table and other historical kitchen items. Pretty fascinating site he’s put together here.

It’s a kind of extreme ugliness that almost becomes beauty again, or at least it conceals something that in a woodworker’s expert hands can become something worth looking at. Now that I’m pretty sure it’s not going to fall on my head as I walk by, I’m going to enjoy this burly birch a lot more.


13 Responses to “Burly Birch”

  1. Jen Says:

    That Michael Combs stuff is really beautiful. I’ll never look at a burl the same way again!

  2. Paula Says:

    It’s nice it has been left to stand even though it didn’t fit the usual picture of a healthy tree. Look how much we’ve all learned because you happened to notice it! Thanks for sharing. – Paula

  3. Catherine Says:

    That is very unusual. It sure gives that tree character!

  4. Grace Says:

    There is a grove of oaks not too far from here that have burls but nothing like this birch. You’re right it goes beyond ugly back to beautiful especially understanding the origins. Like most people I’d say. šŸ™‚

  5. kanak Says:

    Fascinating post, Karen.I’ve never seen anything like that! Strange and beautiful. Thanks for the links too. I checked out the treen by Michael Combs– amazing!

    There’s always something new to learn! Till date I knew burly but burls is what I learned today.

  6. Megan Says:

    I never knew what those were, I assumed they were some sort of pruning gone wrong. Guess I can stop being grossed out if they’re naturally occurring. The kind of look like a goiter though.

  7. Great post. So glad you did that research; all of it is new to me.

  8. RainGardener Says:

    That was really fascinating Karen, and the tree is really neat to look at. I’ve never seen them go all the way up like that. Good work.

  9. Ronnie Says:

    Did you know that in Iceland something like 40% of the population believes in elves…and that before doing any sort of construction one must have an elf inspection so as not to disturb them?! Perhaps these burls or nodes or what-have-you are actually elf dwellings! I’m a believer! šŸ˜›

  10. Cynthia Says:

    Really interesting post Karen. I did not realize they were used in furniture making. Thanks for sharing the links as well- I’m going to show them to my woodworking husband! šŸ™‚

    • Rick Says:

      A few years ago my uncle gave me a white birch burl that was huge. about 4 and half feet tall by 3 feet wide. I have made a beautiful table top from it and it is true.. it’s ugly on the outside but extremely beautiful on the inside. It is also very hard wood to bring to a smooth finish, but is worth all the effort.

  11. Burls are indeed beautiful in wood–and very, very hard to work! So that makes them doubly special in my book. šŸ™‚

  12. Georgia ( Says:

    Burls are beautiful, inside and out.

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