Wonderful treasure

Belarus is far from being rich with resources. Still, we have a largest resource in the world. To surprise, it is Karelian birch. We have even more than in Karelia itself
True connoisseurs measure this timber in kilos instead of tons; on kilogram costs $11-19. One cubic meter of veiny Karelian birch goes off at $3,000 in the world market. Craftsmen buy Karelian birch in small plates. It is valued for its rarity and strange texture — cut surface resembles sun-colored marble with curls, droplets, "eyes" and spots. It is customary to think that karelian birch grows in Karelia only. The expression "karelian birch" was introduced by Carl Merkin in the 19th century — this Russian researcher was the first to singularize and describe the plant. However, before that local craftsmen used the valuable timber and did not need Latin name and classification. Karelian birch was Russian answer to English furniture manufacturers, whose products were in vogue among aristocracy at that time. Karelian lake district actively merchandised the legendary timber and articles made of it. As a result, the symbol of Karelia is nearly extinct to 7 thousand trees today and is placed in local endangered species list (the Red Book).

According to data from Institute of experimental botanics under Belarusian Academy of science, we have about 100 thousand registered trees in natural environment; total population of Karelian birch makes up to 300 thousand trees in Belarusian forests (considering only aged trees of industrial interest). Most trees grow in Minsk, Vitebsk and Grodno regions.

Karelian birch furniture is rare, expensive and unpractical. It is rather a sign of luxury affordable to well-off snobs and prosperous beauty lovers. they say that Alla Pugacheva has a Karelian birch wardrobe. Madonna and Yves Montand purchased such "articles of non-prime necessity". Price depends on texture, material (solid timber, plywood or skillet), treatment and antiquity. Of course, there are cheaper "consumer goods" — an archaized telephone set finished with Karelian birch veneer costs about $700, a moderate textured stool would go off at $400.

Articles of Karelian birch are as beautiful as unsightly the tree itself is. It looks pitiful — short, writhen and appears rather a bush than a tree. The timber is knobby with pits and laps, unlike other species of wood. It′s hard to define tree age by yearly rings as they resemble star-like zigzags. This exterior squalor allowed many trees to survive in Belarus, for local peasants preferred more regular trees even for firewood. As a last resort, — a tuft of hair from a mangy mare! — they used to take green branches to be used in sauna.

Karelian birch grows far slower than its genus sisters. Sometimes enthusiastic botanists used to spud out "ill springwood" to let regular European white birch grow normally.

However, Karelian birch doesn′t always look that dull, relatively high slender specimen occur, too. If such tree gives rich texture timber, it′s priceless.

There is a unique plantation near Gomel — 4 hectares of artificially grown Karelian birch. This is the result of 18 years of painstaking work by Tatiana Barsukova, member of local Institute of forest. Her seedlings have already been sent to many forest enterprises and will reach optimum age in about 40 years. Let′s try to assess the price of Gomel plantation: on the assumption that one hectare gives up to 100 cubic meter of timber, resulting amount looks impressive.

Last year felling Karelian birch was banned in Belarus, except for cases agreed in Ministry of nature (sanitary felling, industrial needs etc). However, there were no commercial production before as well, only some enterprises can remember a couple of cubic meters sold to Scandinavian states.

There is no industrial processing of Karelian birch in Belarus because of small volumes.

Under the veil of a businessman I phoned some enterprises that produce elite furniture, small articles of Karelian birch and perform restoration works — and pretended I wished to sell a couple of cubic meters of Belarusian round timber of Karelian birch. Virtually each company was interested. Manufacturers acknowledged that Belarusian prices and texture were more than satisfactory for them. Yet it is planned to abandon Karelian birch for about 10 years, which will allow to strengthen its genetic resource and increase number of plants.

Andrei Novikov
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