Walking down the street near my house the other day, I did a double-take when I saw this strangely-shaped white birch tree.
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.
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.
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.