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Birch or Aspen Tree? Two easy ways to know the difference.

The art is paying attention to two details.

A swarm of mosquitoes gorged my bare legs, and no-see-ums hovered around my head while I trudged deeply into the woods of Pikesview Reservoir in Colorado Springs seeking an answer:

Was I surrounded by birch or aspen trees?

Slapping and shooing the buzzing bugs, I pressed on.

Kate Moynihan artist woods of birch and aspen trees
Among the aspen trees. Or is it a birch?

For 60+ years, as a Michigan native, I assumed all the white-barked trees I favored in my paintings were inspired by the birch tree, a common tree in my homeland state. So on my first-time-ever trip to Colorado I expected to see the Quaking Aspen.

Which I did.

Standing at the edge of the woods I saw clusters of white and gray barked trees with leaves quivering in the light breeze. I hiked in farther.

After poking my nose up close, I not only discovered aspen trees, but birch trees stood alongside.

How did I know the difference?

Two reasons

  1. The birch bark peels its craggy rough bark into wispy layers as thin as paper. Whereas the nearby towering aspen bark is smooth to touch.

  2. Although both trees flutter in the wind, the aspen leaf is truly heart-shaped while the birch leaf is more elongated like a "V" and has prominent toothed edges.

As my skin swelled with puffy pink bites I escaped the woods and took an antihistamine. Sadly the Benadryl did little to the angry-looking welts that covered me, and made my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth. All I wanted was a jet-propelled toothbrush to turbo-charge away the sawdust feeling.

Next time this non-camping gal will do an internet search for inspiration as it only took a few keystrokes in the comfort of an air conditioned office to learn this fact:

Both birch and aspen trees grow side-by-side across Alaska to down to Iowa and through much of the Rocky Mountains into Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

Although the birch and aspen tree leaves turn yellow in autumn, customers love it when I paint them in every color from soothing blues, refreshing greens, to warm and energic reds.


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