For birch trees, naturally peeling bark is part of its growth cycle. As the tree grows and the trunk increases in width, the older bark pushes out from the more central parts of the tree, dries, and falls off.
Birch bark can be tempting to peel because it is beautiful. If you peel birch bark too early, you risk damaging the tree. You can safely peel off birch tree bark if the bark comes off with little resistance and is less than 1/4th inches thick. This is bark that the birch tree is already shedding.
Read on to learn the reasons birch bark can fall off naturally and why you should not peel it off yourself. We will also discuss what to look for to distinguish between natural bark peeling and an underlying issue affecting the tree’s health.
Why Do People Peel Off Tree Bark?
There are a few reasons people purposely peel away tree bark. Sometimes they use bark to make things, other times it is for the care or removal of the tree.
People have peeled bark to create things like baskets, boats, and parts of shelters in the past. Peeled birch bark, as well as the substance that holds the layers together, have also been used to make medicine.
A tree may also get damaged and need to be removed. People might peel away the bark on a tree they intend to get rid of. Peeling away the tree’s bark will cause the tree to die and dry out faster over a season, making the tree much lighter and easier to remove.
Why Does Birch Tree Bark Peel?
There are several reasons bark can peel from a tree. Bark may peel simply because the tree is shedding a layer of protection it no longer needs.
In other cases, bark may peel from many underlying conditions. Peeling bark can signal that a tree is suffering from some type of illness or disease. It may also be a sign of insect infestation that is damaging the tree and causing the bark to peel away.
Some tree bark peels because the moisture conditions or drainage are off for a tree. In any circumstance where you notice the bark of a tree peeling, you will want to investigate these potential causes.
Interesting to note that birch peel bark doesn’t just peel like typical tree bark but in-fact, according to the University of Vermont’s Department of Plant and Soil Science, birch tree bark actually peels in sheets.
Fungi Can Cause Birch Tree Bark To Peel
Bug infestation, frost, and water damage are not the only enemies of your birch tree’s health. There is one more we have yet to touch on.
Fungi can cause bark to peel before it should. Hypoxylon canker is one of the common fungi capable of causing bark peeling. Unfortunately, it is not a treatable disease.
If you are not sure whether your tree is naturally peeling or if it is being affected by an underlying cause, contact a professional arborist. They can inspect your tree and give you a more definitive answer.
Popular Uses For Birch Bark
Though there are safe ways to collect birch bark, if you are looking for crafting materials, this Natural Birch Bark is a great find! It comes in three sizes for all of your craft making needs and is just as beautiful as what you can collect yourself, with less of the hassle.
Birch bark has had many uses throughout history. Traditionally, people have used it to construct useful items like baskets, shelters, boats, and weapons. It was used as paper before the invention of modern-day paper as well.
Items like canoes, dishes, cookware, and even art were made from birch bark by Native American tribes near the Great Lakes. Canoes made from birch bark are lightweight and naturally water-resistant, making them perfect for early construction.
The powdery substance in between the layers of birch bark has been used as a natural painkiller as well. People have used many parts of the birch tree for medicinal uses throughout the years. Always consult a doctor before treating yourself in any way.
A quick note, if you’re interested, check out the reasons why birch trees can’t grow in shade here.
Why You Should Not Peel Bark Off Of A Birch Tree
There are multiple reasons you should not peel the bark off of a birch tree. Several things can damage a birch tree if you peel away the bark.
If the bark on a tree is very loose, this is a signal that the tree no longer needs that piece of wood. This process is akin to a shedding of skin that is no longer needed as a protective layer.
However, if the bark is still attached, this can harm the tree in multiple ways.
Peeling Bark Can Harm The Inner Bark
If a birch tree begins to peel in a natural shedding as a result of the tree growing, the old bark will usually fall off of the tree in its own time. It is not recommended to peel away tree bark.
If you peel bark that is not yet ready, you might pull off more than the tree is ready to shed. Over peeling birch tree bark can harm the tree.
When tree bark is over peeled past the layers it is naturally shedding, the underlayers of the tree may not be fully ready to be exposed. Areas of a tree with prematurely peeled bark are vulnerable to weather, unfavorable moisture conditions, or bug infestations.
Birch Trees Can Get Sick From Exposed Bark
Birch trees can suffer from many illnesses. When bark is peeling unnaturally, this could be a sign that a tree is already suffering from an attack of boring bugs. It could also result from any other number of unfavorable conditions caused by weather or where the tree is growing.
Peeling the bark of a birch tree leaves it more susceptible to disease. Without their natural defenses, trees will struggle to thrive.
In an article from Iowa State University, the authors note that peeling bark is typical of certain trees, including birch trees, and is a natural sign of tree growth. As the tree grows, it pushes the older bark from the center of the tree. The outer bark then dries and sheds.
Removing Bark From A Birch Tree Can Leave It Vulnerable
Tree bark acts like our skin acts for us. It is the first line of defense and protection for your tree. Any signs of distress can signal a deeper issue with the tree underneath.
A birch tree that has had its tree bark removed can be vulnerable to frost. It can also be susceptible to excess moisture that can become trapped under loosened bark layers and cause fungal issues.
Any area where the bark has been prematurely peeled is an area left open to potential damage.
Exposed Inner Bark Can Stop The Flow Of Nutrients
If you peel bark from a birch tree, the tree may also suffer from a lack of nutrients.
A tree gets its nutrients in different ways, and one of the most important for the birch tree lies underneath the outer bark of the tree. There is a nutrient transport system under the outer layer of bark that helps nutrients travel where they need to go.
If you peel away birch tree bark, you can damage this nutrient transport system, called the phloem, and the tree can die. If the bark is removed in a ring around the entire tree, and this layer is damaged, it spells disaster for your tree. The tree roots will die and the tree will need to be removed.
Now if you actually need to remove tree roots, you can get rid of tree roots using vinegar.
Peeling Bark Can Leave A Birch Tree Open To Frost Damage
During the winter, trees can suffer from a few different types of damage. Some of this damage is referred to as load damage. This type of damage usually affects the branches or the trunk of the tree.
Heavy snowfalls and ice that remain for long periods of time on tree branches can cause significant damage. If this occurs, otherwise healthy branches may snap under the weight of heavy frosts, ice, and snow.
In other cases, the bark itself can be damaged by freezing temperatures. Sometimes, tree bark itself can suffer from freeze damage. This happens when bark that is already slightly peeling freezes and cracks.
These freeze cracks can happen as a result of sunscald as well. The outer layer of your tree loses some of its cold hardiness when temperatures warm up, which is referred to as sunscald. If the temperature drops again quickly, like from day to night, frost cracks can form.
The south-facing side of your tree is the most prone to damage. When this happens, the area underneath the tree bark can become susceptible to further frost damage.
Peeling Birch Tree Bark And Bug Infestations
Keeping your trees free of bug infestation is most definitely important. Peeling the bark off of your birch tree will make this more difficult. Look out for signs of infestation before it is too late!
In an article from Oregon State University, the author discusses the damage caused by a pest called the bronzed birch borer. These pests had a pattern of infestations in birch trees around the Oregon area.
It’s noted that tree damage from these types of insects, who specifically target birch trees, can be hard to spot until there is already significant damage done. They also write that it is important to consider how much of a tree has been damaged before attempting to treat it.
If over 40% – 50% of a tree has suffered damage, it probably does not make sense to try to save it. At this point, tree removal is the best option.
When Is A Good Time To Peel Tree Bark?
In the article, Harvesting And Use Of Birch Bark by the Michigan Agency Forestry, the author notes that if you remove birch bark correctly, it does not harm the tree.
When attempting to remove birch tree bark, one should look for already loosened bark that comes off with very little resistance and is less than 1/4 inches thick.
They also note that birch bark can be harvested from pieces that have already fallen off of the trees. In fact, this is the preferred way to collect birch bark.
If you are ever building with logs, this is when it is important to peel away outer bark. If you leave loose bark on a tree log, it becomes a boat for moisture, rot, bugs, and other problems of deterioration.
As birch trees grow, their bark will dry, peel, and fall off the tree on its own. Peeling birch bark is a natural occurrence for this type of tree. If you have a birch tree and you notice it is peeling, check the tree for any signs of damage.
Look for frost damage, pest damage, or fungal damage when checking your tree’s health. If you do not see any other signs of damage, you probably have a healthy birch tree that is just going through its natural cycle of shedding old bark.
In either case, avoid peeling the bark from your birch trees to avoid causing damage to the tree. If you are unsure whether your birch tree is healthy, contact a professional who can come out and check the health of your tree just to be on the safe side.
Katovich, Steven, et al. “How to grow and maintain a healthy birch tree.” NA-FR-02-97.[Radnor, PA]: US Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Area State & Private Forestry 297 (1997).
Lines, Roger. “Man’s use of birch—past and present.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Section B: Biological Sciences 85.1-2 (1984): 203-213.
Shorohova, Ekaterina, et al. `Tree species traits are the predominant control on the decomposition rate of tree log bark in a mesic old-growth boreal forest.” Forest Ecology and Management
Fletcher, Lucie, et al. “The use of birch bark.” Star Carr 2 (2018): 419e435.
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