About twenty years ago a friend gave me a twig with roots. She said to me, "I don't know what this is, but I don't want anymore bushes in my yard!" Now, many growing years later, this little twiggy bush has grown into a wonderful 40 foot tall River Birch Tree. It is the crowning glory in my front yard, and it still gives me pleasure as it stands leafless and peeling in the winter sun.
My 5 year old neighbor comes knocking at my door. "Can I peel your tree, please? It has a sunburn." I am a real tree lover and I am teaching my little neighbor friend that my tree doesn't have a sunburn, the River Birch just looks that way when it is growing.
I talk to my trees, and most of the time they whisper back to me. I lean on them, they hold me up. Among my favorites is the "twiggy bush" that my friend thought she was dumping on me when she gave me the River Birch (Betula nigra) all those years ago. It provides amazing beauty throughout the year, as do most other trees that I have met. But the River Birch constantly surprises me with the things it inspires me to create. When I need a centerpiece for my dinner table on Christmas Eve, I dash outside to my River Birch tree. It also appears in the wreath on my front door. It's bark is so versatile that it becomes a place card for special dinners. Its curly bark has covered leaky bird houses, it frames small mirrors, it appears in scrapbook pages, and it is a real magnet for small children.
When you collect birch bark to use in your decorations, it is important to quickly wash it very gently with a gentle liquid dishwashing soap in warm water to debug it. This is an easy step, but I cannot stress "gentle" enough, because river birch bark is quite thin and fragile. Once it is debugged, simply lay it out on several layers of paper toweling and let it air dry. It becomes quite flexible when wet, but that same moisture creates a problem when it is time to glue it to any surface. So, let's make a list of what you will need if you happen to have a River Birch handy, and if you are feeling creative:
a nice clean surface to work on
a hot glue gun and glue sticks
a container of any shape
cardboard to be made into a cone
children's glue sticks
closepins or springlike clips
Don't forget the holiday music playing in the background.
Starting with a picture frame, or a framed mirror, glue one piece of bark at a time to the frame's surface, starting at the bottom and working upward. I like to always use the bark just as it came from the tree with its rough edges, but if a piece is too large, it might have to be scissor trimmed to fit
The same is true of a container for a holiday centerpiece. Work always from the bottom to the top, and some little curls can be added to cover any seams you don't want showing. I usually use a hot glue gun with all my birch bark projects, but when working with small children, the kid's glue sticks will also work, and that is when the clothespins and clips come in handy.
Do you need a place card for your dinner table? The birch bark works much the same as papyrus, and readily accepts ink from any marker. Match your ink to your color scheme.
I made so many decorations with my birch bark this year, I did not have enough to make a cone shaped tree. However I did find one at a local yard sale in the fall, and it has been made from a thicker type of white bark, but the process is the same. The difference is that with River Birch bark, the bark tends to curl, and the tree will have rows of upward curling branches instead of the downward pointing branches that you see in this photo.
All in all, my River Birch tree provides me with ongoing beauty, and a very inexpensive material to use in decorating for the holidays. If you aren't lucky enough to live with a River Birch tree, check out your local woods. When the tree grows, the bark splits and eventually falls to the ground and there it is, just waiting for you.
Have a great holiday season and Happy Decorating!(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 17, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
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