6 Types of Birch Trees that Grow Well in Wisconsin

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Written By Kenique Ivery

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Birch trees are members of the genus Betula and part of the Betulaceae plant family. Within this genus are various small to medium-sized trees and shrubs native to the Northern Hemisphere’s temperate and boreal forests regions. 

The following list shows some wonderful birch trees to grow in Wisconsin. Birch trees provide plenty of ornamental charm. Any of the following are fantastic additions to your landscape or land as they do not require much maintenance or space. 

All six of the following birches have beautiful yellow fall color. In addition, like other members of their plant family, mature birches produce catkins in the spring. These are long, slim clusters of flowers. While the individual flowers are not noticeable or attractive, the dangling catkins add unique texture and life to trees. 

If you don’t have much experience with birch trees, it may be difficult to tell the difference between them. The list below carefully describes each type of birch tree’s unique aesthetic features. 

6 Attractive Birch Trees to Grow in Wisconsin

1. Gray Birch (Betula populifolia) – Non-Native Tree

Gray Birch
Image by Homer Edward Price via Flickr

Gray birch is a slender tree, often with multiple trunks. The fast-growing tree is native to the northeastern United States.

Its leaves are triangular-shaped with an elongated tip; they have a glossy green on top and pale underneath. Their long and pointed tips are unique features of gray birch leaves.

The bark of this tree is light gray with black patches. On some trees, the bark appears almost white.

Gray birch looks a lot like paper birch. To tell them apart, you can examine the bark and leaves. Gray birch does not have peeling bark, and its leaves have long pointed tips.

This tree is not fussy about sun exposure. It can tolerate anything from shade to full sun. In the same vein, it is also flexible with soil moisture. Dry, moist, and wet soils all suit gray birch.

Other Common Names: Grey Birch

Growing Zones: 3 – 8

Average Size at Maturity: 20 – 30 feet tall with a 10 – 20 feet spread

Flowering Season: Spring

2. Swamp Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) – Native Tree

Swamp Birch
Image by Kevin Fac5cenda via Flickr

Swamp birch is a Wisconsin native. Compared to other birches, it is long-lived, with some trees lasting up to 300 years. 

Another name for swamp birch is yellow birch. While it has beautiful bright yellow fall foliage, that is not the source of its other name. The name derives from the color of swamp birch´s peeling bark. Swamp birch’s bark is its distinguishing feature.

The bark is silvery bronze in color with hints of gold. This beautiful and metallic-looking bark makes swamp birch the landscape tree that gets attention year-round, even in the winter. This glamorous bark coloring is a tell-tale sign of a swamp birch—its bark peels and sheds like those of paper and river birch trees. 

Like other birches, swamp birch has elongated oval, glossy green leaves with finely serrated margins. Such differ from the leaves of gray birch, which feature a rounded base and a narrow-pointy tip. 

Finally, if you crush swamp birch leaves, it gives off a pleasant wintergreen odor. This minty fresh smell will remind you of toothpaste or chewing gum. Crushed sweet birch leaves also give off the same but stronger fragrance.  

Full sun is best for swamp birch but can handle partial shade. It strives for rich and well-drained soil and prefers a sandy loam soil type, but it can adapt to most soil conditions. 

Other Common Names: Yellow birch, Golden birch

Growing Zones:  3 – 7

Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 75 feet tall with a spread of 40 – 65 feet

Flowering Season: Spring

3. Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) – Native tree

Paper Birch
Image by gutenfrog via Flickr

Paper birch is native from Alaska through Canada and down to the Atlantic coast. Among the places in this vast native expanse is Wisconsin. The tree grows with a single trunk or in small clumps with multiple trunks.

On a young paper birch, the park is smooth and white. But as the tree matures, the thin bark begins to peel and curl into paper-like layers. The peeling bark looks excellent in a snowy setting.

The pale color and paper-like peeling are its defining features. Many years ago, people used to peel the paper-like layers from the bark for writing and sending messages.

Paper birch’s leaves are 2 to 4 inches long. They are dull green on top and pale underneath. The leaves turn bright yellow in fall.

This tree needs a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day. It does well in acidic, loamy, sandy, moist, and well-drained soils.

Paper birch provides tremendous value to wildlife. Various mammals and birds feed on the tree’s leaves, bark, twigs, and seeds.

Other Common Names: American white birch, Canoe birch

Growing Zones: 2 – 7

Average Size at Maturity:  50 – 70 feet tall with a spread of 35 feet

Flowering Season: Spring

4. River Birch (Betula nigra) – Native tree

River Birch
Image by Nicholas_T via Flickr

As the name suggests, River birch grows naturally along riverbanks. In Wisconsin, it is native to the areas around the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers. Outside of nature, it is an increasingly popular landscape tree throughout the United States.

In some ways, one can argue that river birch comes with the beautiful features of other common birches, but all in one tree. Its cinnamon-colored bark curls and peels once mature. The coloring is as impressive as that of swamp birch. At the same time, the peeling bark is as memorable as that of paper birch.

One reason river birch is so popular is its fast growth; in the right conditions, the tree will grow two feet in a year. The oval-shaped tree can grow with one or multiple trunks.

River birch grows best with at least six hours of direct sunlight daily. Naturally, it tolerates wet and heavy soils. Bu the tree also has some drought tolerance.

Other Common Names: Black birch, Water birch

Growing Zones: 4 – 9

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 70 feet tall with a spread of 40 – 60 feet

Flowering Season: Spring

5. Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) – Non-Native Tree

Sweet Birch
Image by Plant Image Library via Flickr

Sweet birch distinguishes itself from others with its dark-colored bark. Another way to tell it apart is the wintergreen scent of its twigs, bark, and leaves. You can use these parts to produce an essential oil almost identical to wintergreen.

Sweet birch leaves are much larger than other birch trees, measuring 2 to 6 inches long. These leaves are an oval shape with finely serrated margins. In the spring, they are light green and turn glossy green in the summer. The fall foliage is rich golden yellow. Some argue it has the best fall color of all the common birches.

Young sweet birch trees feature a smooth grayish bark with thin horizontal lenticels. In contrast, older trees develop a rough and deeply fissured bark with scaly plates. These mature bark features are another tell-tale sign of a sweet birch tree.

Sweet birch does best in bright and direct sunlight (at least six hours each day). The tree does best in rich, fertile soil that is slightly acidic, moist, and well-draining. Also, it won’t do well in dry and poor-quality soil.

Other Common Names: Black birch, Cherry birch, Mahogany birch, Spice birch

Growing Zones: 3 – 7

Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 50 feet tall with a spread of 35 – 40 feet

Flowering Season: Spring

6. Weeping Birch (Betula pendula) – Non-Native Tree

Weeping Birch
Image by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr

Weeping birch is identifiable from a distance. Unlike its tall, slender, upright relatives, this tree features a graceful weeping growth habit.

This birch is native to the temperate and boreal forest regions of Europe and Asia. It strives in cool climates and is an excellent choice for northern Wisconsin residents.

The bark is also eye-catching. It is primarily white with blotches of dark grey. Weeping birch features dark green leaves that turn bright yellow in the fall.

The weeping birch is a low-maintenance tree. It grows well in clay, loamy, and sandy soils that are moist but well-drained. Overall, the soil should be rich, but it will tolerate poor soils. Also, at least four hours of direct unfiltered sunlight is best.

Other Common Names: Silver birch, East Asian white birch, European white birch, Warty birch

Growing Zones: 2 – 6

Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 40 feet tall and 15 – 30 feet wide

Flowering Season: Spring

Birch trees are valuable to the landscape and nature

Birches are an integral part of Wisconsin’s forests. Paper birchriver birch, and swamp birch are native to Wisconsin. 

Birches trees produce high-quality and decorative wood. For this reason, unfortunately, in recent years, there has been a trend in Wisconsin of people illegally cutting down and selling birch. This situation is a shame because birch trees provide much beauty to forests and food and shelter to wildlife.   

Each type of birch tree has something unique about it. For example, swamp birch has a metallic-looking peeling trunk with tones of silver, bronze, and gold. Sweet birch is the most fragrant with its wintergreen aroma. Then there is the landscape favorite, river birch, which boasts a cinnamon-colored peeling bark. 

All the birches on this list are low-maintenance and beautiful. They are not massive trees, so they don’t need much space. You can incorporate them in most yards and landscapes. None of them are fussy about soil. In addition, none of them have any unique or special care requirements.

Finally, the temperate climate of Wisconsin’s planting zones makes birches a great choice as this is ideal for them. 

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Kenique Ivery

Global Green Thumb

Kenique grew up in Florida and currently lives in southern China. Before China, he spent many years in Portugal and the Caribbean. He studied economics and is a teacher, entrepreneur, and writer. Since he was knee-high, he has been gardening and was an active member of FFA (Future Farmers of America). He is his best self in a densely wooded forest or park. Depending on the day, you can find him reading, hiking, traveling, exercising, sipping lots of tea, or eating everything in sight.

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