Get to know Red Birch trees

Know your islands

Since time immemorial, people have gathered plant and animal resources for their needs. Some of these resources include edible nuts, fruits, herbs, spices, and fibres used for construction of shelter and plant or animal products for medicinal, cosmetic or cultural uses.

Red Birch tree

Among these uses, medicinal plants play a central role.

Not typically thought of as herbs, trees are also a part of our living pharmacy.

Some older Caymanians still boil the bark to make a medicinal drink, with Wild Fig milk added, to treat backache.

The following is taken from Wild Trees in the Cayman Islands by Fred Burton, with illustrations by Penny Clifford; photographs by Sean Slattery and Marnie Laing.

Red Birch

Bursera simaruba

The Red Birch, often simply called ‘Birch,’ is unrelated to the Birch trees of temperate climates (in the genus Betula).

It is a large, fast growing tree, easily recognized thanks to its brown-red bark which peels profusely in paper-thin sheets.

A greenish tint shows through where the bark is thin, and a sticky, aromatic resin exudes if it is damaged. Under the papery bark peelings, the surface of the trunk and large branches is smooth and spotted with pale breathing pores: skin-like wrinkles are often present where branches bend.

Lichens and other epiphytes are rare, unable to stay attached to the constantly shedding surface.

Red Birch is deciduous, dropping all its leaves during the height of the dry season.

It flowers twice a year, once on bare branches at the end of the spring dry season, and again in late summer.

The clusters of small yellow flowers produced dark red fruits, which persist for months and from a staple diet for parrots, White-crowned Pigeons, and several smaller fruit eating birds.

This tree is found throughout the West Indies, and from Florida down to northern South America.

It is one of the most common trees in Cayman’s woodlands on all three islands. The wood is pale and soft, and has been used for making crates and match-sticks.

In Cayman popular traditional uses included making model boats and cricket balls. Some older Caymanians still boil the bark to make a medicinal drink, with Wild Fig ‘milk’ added, to treat backache. Red Birch makes living fence posts: the trunks of cut saplings take root easily.

Many an old property line is now marked by neat rows of mature Red Birch trees, grown up from a Red Birch fence. It also sprouts readily from seed or from normal cuttings, and grows quite fast.

Grow Cayman Plants and encourage Cayman Wildlife! For more information, to share your knowledge or if you would like to get involved with the many activities in the National Trust’s Know Your Islands Program, please visit www.nationaltrust.org.ky, or call 949-0121.

Last week’s answer: Fort George was constructed in 1790, probably to ward off attacks by the French or Spanish.

Trivia question: When was the Mosquito Research and Control Unit created?

Look for the answer in next week’s feature!

The weekly column from the National Trust is submitted by Marnie Laing, Education Programs Manager at the Trust. The Trust can be contacted at 949-0121 or via email at [email protected].

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