When one conjures an image of a birch (Betula spp.), typically a majestic tall tree with graceful architecture comes to mind—certainly not a low-growing, wide-spreading shrub. But, the small-statured bog or low birch (Betula pumila) is exactly what the 2017 Wisconsin Expedition (WIE) team, Manager of Plant Records Kyle Port and I, pursued from 23 August to 3 September of 2017. Since I began employment at the Arnold Arboretum three years ago, I have viewed our low birch accessions on an almost daily basis. Due to their short and scrubby growth habit, the specimens grow at the Arboretum alongside other dwarves: the plants of the Bonsai and Penjing Collection. Even as a caretaker of our dwarf potted plants, never did I imagine that I would be seeking B. pumila.
The Arboretum has record of receiving 11 Betula pumila accessions prior to 2017. Founding Director Charles Sprague Sargent obtained the inaugural accession in 1876 from Mount Mansfield, Vermont just four years after the Arboretum’s inception. Presently however, just two living accessions exist, the first comprising the two plants (800-93*A and B) growing next to the Bonsai and Penjing Pavilion. Jack H. Alexander III, former Arnold Arboretum Plant Propagator at the Dana Greenhouses (1976 to 2016), collected those seed-bearing catkins in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada in the fall of 1993. Our second accession (660-2016) is still in production at the Dana Greenhouses. We received small plants from the National Plant Germplasm System of the USDA-ARS (United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service) in 2016, with the seed originally harvested from Bremer County, Iowa. As the Manager of Plant Production, I obviously have regular check-ins with these seedlings.
Low birch is the only shrub birch native to Wisconsin and is widespread throughout the United States, indigenous to the northern Midwest, West Coast, Northeast, as well as much of Canada. It occurs in a variety of wetlands, such as bogs (areas of soft, water-logged ground), fens (low lying, frequently flooded land), and swamps (wetlands dominated by woody plants) in calcium-rich regions. During our expedition, Kyle and I anticipated finding abundant plants because the majority of the Nature Conservancy preserves we planned to visit harbor these bodies of water.
After several days of looking in these prime habitats, to my utter disappoint, not a single Betula pumila was found. Viewing the Arboretum’s only ex situ accessions every day for years had made this the one target taxon that I truly desired to acquire. So on our expedition’s fifth day, Kyle and I decided to try another approach and go on a plant hunt using coordinates we pulled from a 1958 herbarium voucher in the Wisconsin State Herbarium database. The point was off Highway 54 in Black River Falls, above the Wildcat Ridge State Natural Area. The record indicated that the bog was being drained, and that black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), eastern larch (Larix laricina; another WIE priority taxon), and black spruce (Picea mariana) were associated species.
After navigating to our location using our GPS, Kyle and I parked the vehicle, walked a short distance from a turnout, and began to look around. We excitingly noted that black chokeberry was still abundant, and walking further down the highway’s shoulder, we were elated as we saw the 1950’s low birch population flourishing 60 years later. At last, my long sought-after shrub was right before me in its native environment, after being so elusive the entire expedition. As the shrub groupings were not accessible from the road, we carefully made our way into the bog using sedge (Carex spp.) clumps as stepping stones.
As we got closer, Kyle and I went over the identifying traits on our mental checklist to validate that they were indeed low birches. They stood approximately 2.5 meters (8 feet) tall, which is in the 0.9 to 2.7 meter (3 to 9 feet) range. This is a stark contrast to the 20-meter (65-feet) height attained by another native Wisconsin birch species, yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), which we collected the following day. The other features of these plants were the same as the very familiar Arboretum accessions and the description that Kyle and I had memorized. New twigs were characterized by smooth, reddish brown bark with speckled white lenticels (raised pores on stems that permit gas exchange between the environment and plant tissue). Dentate (bluntly or sharply toothed) leaves were small, 3.8 centimeters (1 ½ inches) long by 3.2 centimeters (1 ¼ inches) wide, and oval or slightly orbicular (round) in shape. And luckily, the plants harbored persistent female catkins that contained small, 3.2 millimeter (1/8 inch), winged nutlets.
Kyle and I harvested as many catkins as possible from the low birches in the vicinity, placed them in a labeled cloth bag, and later that afternoon mailed them overnight to the Dana Greenhouses with other bounties accumulated over two days’ time. Upon my return from the field, I insisted on cleaning and processing the seed myself. Later as I removed the chaff and counted thousands of nutlets, I thought it fitting that once again a team member from the Dana Greenhouses, keepers of the Bonsai and Penjing Collection, was the one to collect this unusual dwarf shrub in a tree genus.
Tiffany Enzenbacher is the Manager of Plant Production at the Arnold Arboretum.