Red birch is a fast-growing landscape and resin yielding tree native to tropical America, its natural range extending from South Florida, through Central American and the Caribbean, to northern parts of South America.
It is typically a medium-sized tree 10 to 15 m (30 to 50 ft) tall, though it may reach up to 30 m (100 ft) in natural forests. On open sites, it develops a straight, uniform trunk supporting a rounded crown, sometimes with wildly curving and twisting branches. Its most distinguishing feature is its lustrous copper coloured bark which cracks and peels off in thin, near translucent flakes.
The leaves are compound, consisting of three to nine oval leaflets up to 7.5 cm (3 in) long, arranged in pairs along the length and with an extra leaflet at the tip. In the dry season, they fall off the tree to conserve water, leaving the branches bare and exposed. The new leaflets emerge a glossy lime-green, then gradually age to dark green. A stem-succulent tree, Red birch also conserves water by storing it in its stems.
Flowers are small, pale green-white and bloom in loose clusters at around the same time as the new leaves develop. They also bloom on and off throughout the year in irrigated landscapes. It is a dioecious species, with female and male flowers borne on separate trees.
The fruit are small, three-sided green berries that become pink-red when ripe, usually eight to ten months after the end of flowering.
In its native range, Red birch is cultivated as a landscape tree for its lustrous, copper coloured bark and its suitability to coastal environments, able to withstand dry conditions and salt spray blowing off the sea.
The wood is light-weight, in the 300 to 400 kg per cubic meter (19 to 25 lbs per cubic ft) range and has low natural resistance to decay and termites. This puts it in the non-durable softwood category, with limited suitability for building and construction work. It also has a high moisture content but, when adequately dried, can be cut up for firewood and for making charcoal. However, it is not an ideal wood for either purpose. Its main uses range from making plywood, boxes and crates to making matchsticks and toothpicks.
The bark on wounding yields a balsam-resin that, if left to ooze, hardens on the trunk over time, where it can be collected. It has long been used in its hardened form as incense to burn during rituals and in its unhardened form as a crude varnish and as glue for mending broken pottery. Both the resin and crushed leaves have a strong odour of turpentine.
Red birch is closely related to the Linaloe tree (Bursera linanoe), a commercially important tree native to Mexico.
Grows naturally in seasonally dry, sub-humid to moderately humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally frost-free areas with annual lows of 17 to 25°C, annual highs of 27 to 36°C, annual rainfall of 500 to 1600 mm and a dry season of 3 to 8 months.
In Jamaica, Red birch trees occur mainly in coastal areas, with the occasional tree at higher elevations up to 700 m (2300 ft). Areas where the average low of the warmest month is 19°C (66 F°) or above.
New plants are started from seed or cuttings, which are quick to take root.
Performs well on free-draining clay-loam, loam, sandy-loam, loamy-sand and limestone, or high calcareous soils of a moderately acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 8.5 and on sites with full to partial sun exposure. Being a stem-succulent species, it has good tolerance to drought conditions and is moderately tolerant of salt spray.
Birds and small animals eat the fruit and disperse the seed. However, there does not appear to be any record of its escape and naturalisation anywhere, despite its widespread cultivation as an ornamental.
Mature trees produce surface roots, which can be a problem if planted near paved structures, such as paved walkways.
Reports of its wind tolerance are conflicting, varying from high to low breakage resistance that may result from seasonal changes in wood moisture content.
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