“As you mount up in the Rockies from the arid and burning sagebrush, into the zone of Pinyon and Juniper, you will see, quite surprisingly, a beautiful little Birch tree that reminds you, as all Birches will, of cooler climes and lusher forests. Indeed, this tree may venture out into the sagebrush as if to meet you more than half way. For the Water Birch clings to the cold mountain streams; as long as it can have its roots coolly laved, it dares the shadeless plains, and may follow streams whose destiny, in the Great Basin, is to die in the desert or reach only some soda lake–content with them, apparently, as long as the water keeps swiftly moving and runs the year round. So you see long double lines of the Water Birch, straight or winding as the water courses may determine, like streamers from the mountain forests.” (Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of Western Trees.)
There is a water birch (Betula fontinalis) in the garden here. No cold mountain streams or anything remotely like that, though, and the birch has to make do with what it gets. This is probably why every so often it decides to let one or two of its larger branches go, which is acceptable to me, since the dead branches attract downy woodpeckers.
It’s been in the garden for twenty five years and does clash with the rest of the decor–a water birch in a more or less dry garden–but my wife, who was three-quarters Swedish and one-quarter Norwegian, had some kind of affinity with birches and adored the thing. This is her photograph of it.
Aside from the beautiful autumn color and the fact that it makes excellent, sweetly scented wood to burn in the chiminea, it also does this very odd thing, when the afternoon sun strikes the bare twigs and branches.