Birch trees are beautiful deciduous trees with unique colorful, and often exfoliating bark that adds winter interest to the landscape long after their green leaves have turned golden yellow and fallen from the trees.
Birch trees are all part of the Betula genus in the Betulaceae family, which also includes alders (their closest cousins), hornbeams, and hazelnuts.
The Betula genus has about 60 currently accepted species, all native to the northern hemisphere, with the highest diversity near the circumboreal region. Some grow naturally as far south as southern China in Asia and Florida in North America.
Birch trees are famous for their historical use in birch bark canoes, birch beer, footwear, and even as a source of flour made into bread.
I will teach you how to identify the different types of birch trees, and then we will look at some specific birch trees to learn more about them.
Birch Tree Identification (With Photos)
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Leaves
Birch trees are all deciduous trees that lose their leaves each fall to go dormant for the winter months. Most are native to areas with long, cold winters, so deciduous leaves make sense.
Birch leaves are thin and fairly small, ranging from about 0.2” to 5.5” long.
Birch leaves are technically arranged alternately. However, most of them grow in what appear like opposite pairs because they are growing on short shoots, sometimes called spurs, on the branches rather than the branches themselves. Short shoots are like very short branches that come off the ‘normal branches,’ aka the long shoots.
Some botanists differentiate the short shoots as being reproductive shoots where flowers and fruits grow and long shoots as vegetative shoots. This works in species like birch, whose fruits also grow on short shoots.
This can sometimes help differentiate birch from their closest cousins, the alder (Alnus) trees, whose leaves are usually borne on both long and short shoots.
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Leaf Shape
The shape of the leaves is a great way to quickly identify the different types of birch trees since the leaf shape varies with the species.
Leaves are mostly ovate (egg-shaped, widest near the base), elliptic (widest in the middle and tapering at both ends, like an ellipse), deltoid (triangular, also called deltate), or round to almost round (also called orbicular or suborbicular for almost round).
Sometimes leaves can also be rhombic (diamond-shaped), oblong (with two sides parallel to each other and mostly rounded on both ends), obovate (like ovate but widest at the tip), or rarely almost reniform (kidney-shaped with a strong indentation where the petiole attaches creating two inward-bending lobes).
Often, leaves can be in between two shapes. For example, they may be ovate-elliptic or deltoid-rhombic.
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Leaf Tips (Apex)
Leaf tips (apex) of birch trees do not vary as much as the shape but can still be a useful identification tool.
Often leaf tips are acute (the two sides are mostly straight and meet at an angle of less than 90°), short or long-acuminate (where the two sides taper to a short or long narrow point), or rounded (having no edges or angles).
Sometimes leaf tips can be obtuse (the two sides are mostly straight and meet at an angle of greater than 90°) or sometimes caudate (long-acuminate but where the leaf tip is elongated with an almost tail or whip-like appendage).
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Leaf Base
Leaf bases also vary between the different types of birch trees.
Bases are usually rounded (smooth, with no defined angels or edges), cuneate (wedge-shaped, where the two sides are more or less equal and meet an angle of less than 90°, sometimes called acute), or truncate (appearing as though cut off abruptly, truncated).
Sometimes leaf bases are cordate (heart-shaped with an indent where the petiole attaches, creating a lobe on either side) or almost cordate.
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Leaf Margins
Birch leaf margins are never entire, meaning smooth and having no teeth.
Instead, their margins are mostly serrated (jagged-toothed, with forward-pointing teeth, like the teeth on a saw) or doubly serrated (where the teeth have teeth of their own), often irregularly so.
Sometimes they are dentate, which is very similar to serrate and often used interchangeably, but here the teeth are more square or rectangular, less pointy, and they point outwards instead of towards the leaf tip.
Dwarf birch varieties often have crenate or rounded-toothed margins.
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Hairs and Other Surface Features
Birch trees have a wide variety of interesting surface features that are often valuable tools used to help identify the different types of birch trees.
Birch leaves, twigs, and other surfaces are frequently hairy.
Botanists have a lot of terms for plant hairs, technically called trichomes, because they are nothing like animal hairs other than a superficial resemblance.
The hairs seen in birch are usually pubescent (soft and straight) or velutinous. Velutinous is basically soft and straight but very dense hairs, producing a velvety texture. In other families, this is often simply described as densely puberulent or velvety-pubescent, depending on the length.
Sometimes the hairs or trichomes are tomentose, which is long and curly but matted against the plant surface, or villous, which is also long and curly or just not straight but also not matted against the surface.
Other trichomes are glandular, topped with a gland that may or may not be resinous. Some surfaces have resinous punctate surfaces, which is where the surfaces are marked with resinous glands located directly on the plant surface.
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Leaf Veins
Birch leaves have simple pinnate leaf venation. This is where there is one main vein, the midvein, that extends from the petiole to or near the tip of the leaf, and the secondary or lateral veins all run towards the margin, more or less parallel to each other.
Birch tree species are often identified by counting the number of pairs of lateral veins coming off of the midvein, which often varies significantly between species.
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Flowers
Birch trees are monecious, meaning that they have separate male and female flowers located on the same tree.
They produce their flowers in inflorescences (groups) called catkins.
A catkin is a slim, elongated cluster (like a spike) of usually single-sex flowers with inconspicuous or no petals but with scaly bracts subtending the tiny flowers.
Catkins may be erect or pendulous and may be large or small and inconspicuous.
Interestingly, birch trees produce catkins in the previous growing season and overwinter on the tree to expand in the spring with the leaves.
The male or staminate catkins are mostly on terminal twigs, either solitary or in small racemose clusters, and are usually exposed during the winter and expand in the spring as the leaves emerge. Staminate catkins have 2 – 3 (1 – 4) stamens per flower and three flowers per scaly bract.
The female or pistillate catkins are mostly solitary, erect, ovoid to cylindrical, and firm. They are enclosed within leaf buds on short shoots during the winter, protected, and then they also expand with the leaves in the spring. Pistillate catkins have 3 (1 – 3) flowers per scaly bract.
The flowers and reproductive features of catkins are small and inconspicuous, so we will not rely on them for identification. However, it is important to know what the catkins themselves look like, as these can be used to aid in identification.
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Fruits
Birch fruits are small cone-like infructescences (like an inflorescence but a group of fruits, not flowers) that are not woody and mostly disintegrate when the fruits are mature. However, some persist through the winter, and this can be a useful tool in identifying those species.
Their fruits also differ from their close cousins, the alders (Alnus genus), which have woody catkins that typically do not disintegrate at maturity and instead persist for some time after the fruits have matured.
Infructescences can be erect or pendulous, and they may be conical (cone-shaped, like a spinning top), cylindrical (shaped like a cylinder), rounded (also called globose), or obovoid (like obovate but three-dimensional) in shape. These features can be useful in determining the different types of birch.
Infructescecences hold multiple tiny samaras. Samaras are winged nutlets (fertilized seeds) whose wings aid in the wind dispersal of the next generation.
Botanists routinely also describe the infructescences’ scaly bracts and how many lobes they have, whether their margins are ciliate (fringed with hairs) or not, the shape of their tip, and other features. They also describe the samaras and how wide the wings are, and if they extend past the fruit body or not. These features all require magnification or really good eyesight to see.
But since we can rely on other, more obvious features that do not require the use of magnification, we will not use those finer features here other than noting whether or not the scales have hairs. But, again, it is important to know what a birch infructescence looks like, even if you will not use its finer features for identification.
Identifying Birch Trees by Tree Habit
Tree habit or form is the overall shape that a tree has when viewed from a distance.
Birches are either trees or shrubs that may be single-trunked or often multi-trunked.
When trees are young, they typically start off pyramidal (wider at the bottom and narrow at the top, like a Christmas tree) or conical (similar to pyramidal, but narrower, more bullet-shaped) with a main central leader.
As they mature, most birch branches become more spreading, often losing the main central leader, and become narrowly rounded (sometimes called oval), rounded, spreading, or occasionally retain their central leader and become more columnar (tall and thin, like a column).
Shrub forms may be erect and spreading (with branches spreading widely away from each other) or irregular.
Or, they may not be erect but sprawling and creeping (with branches spreading low and out along the ground, away from the center).
Identifying Birch Trees by Smell and Taste of Wintergreen
Some birch species produce oil of wintergreen or methyl salicylate if you want the chemical name for it. This strong minty-woody scent is often used as a valuable identification tool for certain species. Some trees smell and taste very strongly of wintergreen, while others have little to no scent at all.
Simply squeeze the bark on the twigs and smell it, or taste it, to determine if it smells and/or tastes of wintergreen.
Sweet Birch and Yellow Birch produce high quantities of wintergreen.
Generally speaking, the black and yellow birches produce the compound, while the white-barked birches produce little to none.
Identifying Birch Trees by Their Bark
Birch bark is unique and beautiful and makes a great tool for helping identify the different types of birch trees.
The papery peeling bark that exfoliates in horizontal strips is somewhat unique in the plant kingdom and makes identifying a tree as a birch relatively easy.
The color of birch bark varies from species to species being brown, reddish, grayish, to white.
All birch bark starts out smooth when young, and sometimes, it remains smooth and non-exfoliating for the entire life of the tree.
Often, however, birch bark becomes exfoliating as it ages. It tends to exfoliate in thin to wide, usually horizontal, strips that are papery thin but sometimes can be thicker.
Some bark thickens as it ages and develops some vertical grooves (fissures), and occasionally it will develop scaly plates that are loose and may exfoliate somewhat.
Another feature that is commonly seen in birch bark is horizontal lenticels. These are small horizontal pores in the surface of the bark that allow for gas exchange with the atmosphere.
Many trees that possess lenticels lose them as they mature. However, in most birch trees, the lenticels do not fade away and instead expand horizontally, producing long, prominent horizontal lines.
The presence of these expanded horizontal lines in white-barked birch trees is a quick way to help distinguish a birch from aspen in the winter since their bark does otherwise look very similar (also, aspen bark will not peel as birch does).
17 Different Types of Birch Trees & Their Identifying Features
1. Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)
Paper Birch has a long, interesting history in North America, and it happens to be my favorite birch.
It was widely used to make birch bark canoes, footwear, and other products for Native Americans and early settlers in North America.
I have fond childhood memories of seeing the bright white, papery, peeling bark which was such an interesting contrast to the lush greens and browns in the coastal forests of British Columbia, Canada.
It is a very cold-hardy, fast-growing, tall, single-trunk or multi-trunked tree, living about 100 years or rarely 200 years.
In the fall, its leaves turn a lovely yellow color contrasting nicely with their white bark.
It is often grown in groves to create a woodland effect, but they can be grown singly as well.
Best grown in moist, loamy soil in full sun to light shade.
It demonstrates some resistance to the bronze birch borer.
Identifying Features of the Paper Birch
Paper Birch is a tall single-trunked or sometimes multi-trunked tree with a narrowly rounded crown.
The bark is dark reddish brown and smooth when young with pale horizontal lenticels, becoming creamy to chalky white or sometimes brown, readily exfoliating in papery strips, often along their darker expanded lenticels.
Twigs don’t smell of wintergreen and are slightly to moderately pubescent with occasional small resin glands.
Leaves are ovate with 9 or fewer pairs of lateral veins, 2 – 4.75” long, 1.5 – 2.75” wide, with a rounded, cuneate, or truncate base, acute to short-acuminate tips, and margins coarsely or irregularly doubly serrated or serrate-dentate.
Leaf surfaces are sparsely to moderately pubescent, often velutinous on major veins and veins axils with minute resinous glands.
Infructescences are pendulous, cylindric, 1 – 2” long, up to ½” wide, and shatter in late fall. Scales are hairless or pubescent.
Often Confused With: Paper Birch is often confused with Silver Birch, which has pendulous twigs that are hairless but gland-dotted, smaller leaves with 5 – 18 pairs of lateral veins, a usually cuneate (rarely truncate) base, and a hairless to sparsely pubescent lower surface covered with minute resin glands; its infructescences are erect to almost pendulous. Sometimes it is confused with River Birch, which has distinctive exfoliating bark that is not white and usually exfoliates in multiple, very wide, papery layers, or with Gray Birch, whose chalky white bark does not exfoliate, and it has deltoid glossy green leaves that are very pubescent when young.
Other Common Names: Canoe Birch, White Birch, Kenai Birch, Mountain Paper Birch, Paperbark Birch
Native Area: Northern North America, including all Canadian provinces, Alaska, and the northern US states bordering Canada, and dipping south as far as Colorado in the Rocky Mountains.
USDA Growing Zones: 1 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 45 – 70 ft (to 100 ft) tall, 25 – 50 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Prairie Dream® Paper Birch Betula papyrifera ‘Varen’ is a medium-sized tree with snow-white bark on a single or multi-trunked form with dark green leaves that turn golden yellow in the fall.
2. River Birch (Betula nigra)
River Birch is a popular fast-growing tree for home landscaping grown as a single-trunked or multi-trunked tree.
It has unique, distinctive salmon-pink to reddish-brown bark that exfoliates profusely in multiple layers revealing lighter inner bark layers and providing year-round interest in the landscape.
The dark green leaves turn an appealing soft buttery yellow in the fall.
Best grown in moist soil in full sun to partial shade. It does not tolerate alkaline soil.
In its native habitat, it grows along rivers, swampy bottomlands, and floodplains, so it easily tolerates wetter soils.
It resists drought and has good resistance to birch borers.
It is one of the few heat-tolerant birches and the southernmost birch in North America.
Identifying Features of the River Birch
River Birch is a medium to tall single-trunked to often multi-trunked tree with a rounded crown.
Mature bark is grayish-brown, yellowish, reddish, or creamy white, smooth, but irregularly shredding and exfoliating in large, shaggy sheets. Lenticels are dark and expanded horizontally.
Twigs do not smell of wintergreen and are hairless to pubescent, often with tiny, scattered resin glands.
Leaves are rhombic-ovate, 1.5 – 3.2” long, 1.2 – 2.4” wide, with 5 – 12 pairs of lateral veins, broadly cuneate to truncate bases, acuminate tips, and margins that are coarsely doubly serrate to dentate.
Lower leaf surfaces are moderately pubescent to velutinous, especially on major veins and in axils, often with tiny scattered, resinous glands.
Infructescences are erect, conical, or nearly round, 0.6 – 1.2” long, 0.4 – 1” wide, and shattering with fruits in early summer, but the scales often persist into early winter.
Often Confused With: River Birch is mostly confused with Paper Birch, which almost always has white papery exfoliating bark that does not peel in such large strips as River Birch; its ovate leaves have 9 or fewer pairs of lateral veins, and its scales do not persist on its infructescences. It is also sometimes confused with Silver Birch, which has pendulous twigs that are always hairless, smaller ovate to rhombic leaves with usually cuneate bases, and creamy to silvery white bark that exfoliates in the usual horizontal papery strips.
Other Common Names: Black Birch, Red Birch, Water Birch
Native Area: Endemic to the eastern USA from southern Minnesota east to New Hampshire, south to Florida, and west to eastern Texas.
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 80 ft tall, 40 – 60 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available (from left to right):
- Heritage® River Birch Betula nigra ‘Cully’ is a popular landscape tree for its rapid growth, adaptability, resistance to diseases, mild droughts, mild floods, wind, and ice. It has the same unique bark as its type species providing year-round interest, and its green leaves turn yellow and orange in the fall. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees
- Shiloh Splash River Birch Tree Betula nigra ‘Shiloh Splash’ is a unique cultivar with small creamy white and green variegated leaves in a small to medium-sized tree that is narrow and compact for smaller gardens. – Image via Nature Hills
- Dura Heat® River Birch Betula nigra ‘BNMTF’ is a pretty tree with a denser crown than most birch and peeling papery bark that is a unique light golden brown, and it tolerates the heat in zones 8 – 9 better than most birch. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees
- Fox Valley® River Birch Betula nigra ‘Little King’ is a dwarf tree growing to about 12 feet tall with exfoliating salmon and reddish-brown bark, and it’s hardy in zones 4 – 9 and able to withstand extreme summer heat. – Image via Nature Hills
3. Cherry Birch (Betula lenta)
Cherry Birch, often also called Sweet Birch or Black Birch, is a large tree with a single trunk with shiny reddish-brown bark that often looks like cherry bark even as it matures and forms irregular scaly plates.
In the fall, its leaves turn an attractive golden-yellow color.
It makes an attractive shade tree for landscapes and naturalized areas.
The fruiting catkins are popular with wildlife, attracting deer, moose, rabbits, and birds to the feast. Flowers in spring attract butterflies.
It is resistant to the bronze birch borer.
Its broken twigs emit a spicy wintergreen scent, and its fermented sap is used to make birch beer.
It is best grown in full sun to partial shade in moist, well-drained, rich loams that are slightly acidic. It also tolerates sandy and rocky soils, provided they are moist enough.
Identifying Features of the Cherry Birch
Cherry Birch is a large tree with smooth, reddish-brown bark exfoliating in thin layers, maturing to rough and thick with large, loose-edged plates on large trees.
Crushed twigs have a strong smell and flavor of wintergreen.
Leaves are ovate or ovate-oblong, 2 – 4” long, with a rounded to almost cordate base, acute or short-acuminate tip, and very finely, sharply serrated margins. There are 9 – 12 pairs of lateral veins that are impressed on the upper surface. Veins on lower surfaces are appressed-villous hairy.
Infructescence is sessile or nearly sessile, short-cylindrical, ellipsoid, or slightly obovoid, 0.8 – 1.2” long. Scales are hairless.
Often Confused With: Cherry Birch is often confused with Yellow Birch, which also smells of wintergreen, but its similar leaves are narrower with usually 12 – 18 (9 – 18) pairs of lateral veins and margins that are irregularly doubly serrated; its infructescences usually remain intact after the release of its fruits in the fall, and it has pubescent scales. It is also often confused with American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), which is a taller tree with smooth, non-exfoliating bark and sparsely toothed leaves with teeth that terminate at each vein; it also has distinctive long and thin cigar-shaped leaf buds that make it relatively easy to identify.
Other Common Names: Black Birch, Sweet Birch, Mahogany Birch, Spice Birch
Native Area: Eastern North America, from southern Maine west to southern Ontario, south through the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia.
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 70 ft tall, 35 – 60 ft spread
4. Virginia Roundleaf Birch (Betula lenta f. uber)
Virginia Roundleaf Birch is a very rare botanical variant of the Cherry Birch. It is sometimes referred to as Betula uber, but plant authorities have determined it is a botanical form of the Cherry Birch rather than its own species. It is basically a round-leaved mutant variety of the Cherry Birch.
It is a slender, short-lived tree that only lives about 50 years.
It has black or brown bark and unique rounded leaves not usually seen in birch trees.
It is an incredibly rare tree listed on the ICUN Red List as Critically Endangered, with less than 1000 individuals remaining in the wild.
Identifying Features of the Virginia Roundleaf Birch
Virginia Roundleaf Birch is a slender, medium-sized tree with smooth, dark brown bark.
Twigs are hairless and covered with small resinous glands, and they taste and smell of wintergreen when crushed.
Leaves are almost round to broadly elliptic with 2 – 6 pairs of lateral veins, 0.8 – 2” long and almost as wide with a rounded, cordate, or truncate base and a rounded to slightly obtuse tip.
Leaf margins are irregularly serrate or dentate, and lower surfaces are hairless to sparsely pubescent, mostly along major veins and in vein axils, often with scattered resinous glands.
Infructescences are erect, ellipsoid-cylindric, 0.4 – 0.8” long, and about 0.5” wide, shattering with fruits in the fall. Scales are hairless.
Often Confused With: This rare species is most likely to be confused with the type species Cherry Birch, which is a taller tree with more exfoliating reddish-brown bark and larger leaves that are ovate to ovate-oblong rather than round and have 9 – 12 pairs of impressed lateral veins instead of only 2 – 6.
Other Common Names: N/A
Native Area: A narrow endemic native of Smyth County, Virginia, in the eastern USA.
USDA Growing Zones: 5 -7* (* estimated based on its narrow native range being zone 6)
Average Size at Maturity: 20 – 35 ft (to 50 ft) tall, 10 – 30 ft spread
5. Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
Yellow Birch is a slow-growing and relatively long-lived birch that typically lives 150 or up to 300 years.
It is a single-trunked tree that gets its name from its yellow-bronze bark that peels in narrow horizontal strips.
It is an important tree species in the North American lumber industry.
Best grown in moist, well-drained loams in full sun to partial shade.
Birds and wildlife will be attracted to the fruits they feed on in the fall.
Identifying Features of the Yellow Birch
Yellow Birch is a tall tree with a single, straight trunk and a narrowly rounded crown.
Bark is dark reddish-brown when young, maturing to tan, yellowish, or grayish, lustrous, smooth, and irregularly exfoliating. Lenticels are dark and horizontally expanded.
Twigs smell and taste of wintergreen when crushed, are hairless to sparsely pubescent and are usually covered with small resinous glands.
Leaves are narrowly ovate to ovate-oblong with (9-)12 – 18 pairs of lateral veins, 2.4 – 4” long, 1.2 – 2.2” wide, with a rounded, cuneate, or cordate base, acuminate tip, and irregularly sharply doubly serrate margins.
Lower leaf surfaces are usually somewhat pubescent, especially along major veins and vein axils, often with tiny scattered resinous glands.
Infructescences are erect, ovoid, 0.6 – 1.2” long, 0.4 – 1” wide, usually remaining intact after the release of fruits in late fall. Scales are sparsely to moderately pubescent.
Often Confused With: Yellow Birch is mostly confused with Paper Birch but can be quickly differentiated by the scent of wintergreen on the crushed twigs of Yellow Birch, which is not present in Paper Birch. It is also sometimes confused with Cherry Birch, which does produce a wintergreen scent but can be differentiated by its reddish-brown mature bark, its wider ovate to ovate-oblong leaves with only 9 – 12 pairs of impressed lateral veins, and its non-persistent infructescences with hairless scales.
Other Common Names: Swamp Birch, Gold Birch, Curly Birch, Hard Birch
Native Area: Northeastern North America from southern Ontario east to Newfoundland (excluding Labrador) in Canada and from Minnesota and Iowa east throughout all of northeastern USA south to Tennessee and Georgia.
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 100 ft tall, 35 – 60 ft spread
6. Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
Silver Birch has an attractive pendulous habit and distinctive white papery peeling bark with diamond-shaped grooves that have made it popular as a landscape tree worldwide.
It is highly susceptible to the bronze birch borer, so it has fallen out of favor as a landscape tree in recent years.
It is a single to multi-trunked tree with a conical to pyramidal form that gradually becomes narrowly rounded.
Best grown in medium to wet, well-drained, sandy soils in full sun.
This Eurasian native has frequently escaped cultivation and is introduced in numerous Canadian provinces and US states. It is considered invasive in some states, and from the number of escapees that I have personally seen, its invasive status may soon be taken more seriously.
Identifying Features of the Silver Birch
Silver Birch is a tall single to multi-trunked tree with a conical to pyramidal crown that becomes more spreading and rounded when mature.
Mature bark is creamy to silvery white, smooth, exfoliating in long thin horizontal strips, and has horizontally expanded lenticels and vertical diamond-shaped grooves that eventually coalesce.
Twigs are pendulous and hairless but dotted with small resin glands.
Leaves are broadly ovate to rhombic with 5 – 18 pairs of lateral veins, 1.2 – 2.75” long, 1 – 2” wide, with a cuneate or rarely truncate base, acuminate tip, and margins that are coarsely and sharply doubly serrate. Lower surfaces are hairless to sparsely pubescent and covered with minute, resinous glands.
Infructescences are erect to nearly pendulous, cylindric, 0.8 – 1.4” long, 0.2 – 0.4” wide, shattering with fruits in the fall. Scales are sparsely pubescent.
Often Confused With: Silver Birch is mostly confused with Paper Birch, which usually has pubescent twigs that are not pendulous, ovate leaves with 9 or fewer pairs of lateral veins and lower surfaces that are more pubescent to velutinous, and often longer pendulous infructescences with scales that may be hairless or pubescent. Sometimes it is also confused with Downy Birch, whose bark may or may not exfoliate; twigs are usually covered with short bristly hairs, and its variable leaves are pubescent to velutinous on the lower surface and have no conspicuous resin glands.
Other Common Names: Weeping Birch, European White Birch, East Asian White Birch, Warty Birch
Native Area: Most of Europe (mountains in southern Europe), east throughout the Asian continent, south to Iran, and east to China and Siberia.
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 7 (8 – 9 but will not live as long)
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 ft (to 80 ft) tall, 15 – 30 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available (from left to right):
- Magical® Globe Birch Betula pendula ‘Globe’ is a unique natural dwarf tree that only grows to about 5 ft tall and 4 ft wide with a naturally tight rounded ball-like canopy that requires little pruning to maintain. Hardy in zones 3 – 6. – Image via Nature Hills
- Young’s Weeping Birch Betula pendula ‘Youngii’ is a dwarf tree up to 10 ft tall and 12 ft wide with a graceful weeping crown of pendulous branches and twigs. It provides vibrant yellow fall color and is suitable for small gardens. – Image via Nature Hills
- Weeping Cut Leaf Birch Betula pendula ‘Dalecarlica’ is a small to medium-sized tree with pendulous branches and a weeping crown along with unique finely ‘cut’ leaves with coarsely toothed leaves that are so deeply cut they are almost lobed. It is hardy in zones 2 – 6. – Image via Nature Hills
7. Bog Birch (Betula pumila)
Bog Birch is an under-appreciated, hardy, medium-sized, short-lived shrub with delightful elliptical or almost rounded little leaves.
It thrives in wet, soggy soils next to creeks, rivers, lakes, or in fens, bogs, or swampy areas.
In the home landscape, it works well in wet soils, next to bodies of water, and in rain gardens.
It performs best in full sun and tolerates occasional flooding, alkaline soils, heavy clay, and road salts.
It naturally prefers growing in calcium-rich fens where it has been impacted by invasive species and the altering of the local hydrology by ditches, drainage, etc.
Identifying Features of the Bog Birch
Bog Birch is an irregular or spreading medium-sized shrub with smooth dark reddish-brown bark and pale, inconspicuous lenticels.
Twigs do not smell of wintergreen and are hairless to somewhat pubescent, with small scattered resinous glands, especially near the nodes.
Leaves are elliptic, obovate, or almost rounded, sometimes reniform, with 2 – 6 pairs of lateral veins, 1 – 2” (to 2.75”) long, 0.4 – 2” wide, with a cuneate or rounded base, and a broadly acute, obtuse, or rounded tip.
Leaf margins are crenate or dentate, and lower surfaces are hairless or slightly pubescent to very velutinous or tomentose, often with scattered resinous glands.
Infructescences are erect, cylindrical, 0.3 – 0.8” long, about ⅓” wide, shattering with fruits in the fall. Scales are hairless to pubescent.
Often Confused With: Bog Birch is mostly confused with the Dwarf Resin Birch (Betula glandulosa), which has rounded to oval leaves that are much smaller (¼ – 1 ⅛” long and up to 1” wide), glandular warts on its shoots and longer leaf petioles, and slightly larger but thinner infructescences. It is also confused with the Dwarf Birch (Betula nana), which has smooth gray to dark brown bark, twigs that may or may not have warty resin glands, and leaves that always have rounded tips and margins that are deeply crenate.
Other Common Names: Swamp Birch, Dwarf Birch, Glandular Birch, Resin Birch
Native Area: Mostly northern North America, including all Canadian provinces and territories except for Nunavut, plus most northern US states south to northern California in the west and New Jersey in the east.
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 4 – 12 ft tall, 6 – 9 ft spread
8. Dwarf Birch (Betula nana)
Dwarf Birch is another small shrubby birch that is exceptionally cold-hardy, being native to the arctic and tundra regions throughout the northern hemisphere.
It is not often grown in the home landscape except in cold northern areas where it makes an excellent great ground cover.
It tolerates most soil conditions, including poor, rocky, and acidic soils.
It prefers moist to wet but well-drained soils.
It is best grown in full sun and does not tolerate shade.
Identifying Features of the Dwarf Birch
Dwarf Birch is a low creeping or erect shrub with smooth gray to dark brown bark with inconspicuous lenticels that do not expand with age.
Twigs do not smell of wintergreen, are hairless to sparsely or moderately pubescent, and may or may not be heavily resinous or have warty resin glands.
Leaves are rounded, obovate-orbiculate, or sometimes reniform, often wider than they are long, with 2 – 6 pairs of lateral veins, rounded or almost cordate bases, rounded tips, and deeply crenate margins. Lower surfaces are hairless to sparsely or moderately pubescent.
Staminate and pistillate catkins are retained in buds during winter, expanding along with new growth in spring.
Infructescences are erect, almost cylindrical, shattering with fruits in fall.
Often Confused With: Dwarf Birch is mostly confused with the Dwarf Resin Birch (Betula glandulosa), which is a taller shrub, often forming dense thickets, with rounded leaves that are not wider than they are long and twigs that always have glandular warts on the shoots and longer leaf petioles.
Other Common Names: Arctic Birch, Arctic Dwarf Birch, Dwarf Alpine Birch, Bog Birch, Swamp Birch
Native Area: Circumboreal; found in northern Europe, northern Asia, Iceland, Greenland, and northern North America from Alaska, USA, east to Labrador, Canada.
USDA Growing Zones: 1 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 0.5 – 4 ft tall, 1.5 – 3 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available:
- Proven Winners® Cesky Gold® Dwarf Birch Betula x plettkei ‘Golden Treasure’ is a cross between B. pendula ‘Golden Cloud’ and B. nana that grows to 4 ft tall and 3 ft wide with small yellow-green leaves that turn golden yellow in the fall. – Images by Proven Winners, Trees Available at Nature Hills.
9. Downy Birch (Betula pubescens)
Downy Birch is an extremely cold-hardy tree able to do well in USDA zone 2, where it can still grow to 60 ft tall.
It is an edible tree whose inner bark was often eaten in northern climates, where it was ground into flour and made into bread. It is still sometimes used today.
It was also used medicinally as an astringent, anti-inflammatory, and diuretic agent.
It is a fast-growing tree with a shallow root system, so when you plant it, ensure it is in its permanent location since it will not like to be disturbed.
It also does not tolerate compacted soils or permanently wet soils that could harm its shallow roots. However, it does prefer moist but well-drained soils that are on the acidic side.
It has been introduced in several US states and Canadian provinces.
Identifying Features of the Downy Birch
Downy Birch is a single or multi-trunked shrub or tree with dark reddish-brown bark that matures to light reddish-brown, tan, brownish, or grayish-white that may remain smooth or exfoliate in thin papery sheets. Pale horizontal lenticels darken and horizontally expand when mature.
Twigs have no smell of wintergreen and are usually covered with short bristly hairs.
Leaves are ovate or rhombic-ovate, with rounded, truncate, or nearly cordate bases, acute tips, and serrated margins.
Lower leaf surfaces are sparsely pubescent to velutinous, especially along major veins and in vein axils, and they have no conspicuous resin glands.
Infructescences are pendulous or almost pendulous, cylindrical, shattering with fruits in late fall. Scales are puberulent (short-pubescent) to hairless.
Often Confused With: Downy Birch is mostly confused with Silver Birch, which has creamy to silvery-white exfoliating bark, pendulous twigs that are hairless but resin-dotted, broadly ovate to rhombic leaves that have cuneate (rarely truncate) bases, acuminate tips, and lower surfaces with tiny but conspicuous resinous glands; infructescences may be erect or nearly pendulous and have sparsely pubescent scales.
Other Common Names: Hairy Birch, Moor birch, White Birch, European White Birch
Native Area: Widespread from Iceland, the UK, and Spain east throughout northern and central Europe and Asia east to Siberia.
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 65 ft tall, 20 – 35 ft spread
10. Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis)
Himalayan Birch is a medium-sized tree with an open pyramidal form.
It is native to the temperate, montane forests of the Himalayan Mountains.
Its yellow-green to green leaves turn golden-yellow in the fall, and its peeling bark adds winter interest to the landscape.
Best grown in medium to wet, well-drained, sandy, or rocky loams in full sun to part shade.
It performs best in cool temperate climates (zones 5 and 6), where snow covers the root zone in winter.
In climates with hot, humid summers, it is best grown with afternoon shade and bark mulch on the root zone to keep it cool and moist.
Avoid pruning in spring when the sap is running.
Identifying Features of the Himalayan Birch
Himalayan Birch is a medium to tall tree with dark reddish-brown bark exfoliating in thin flakes.
Branches are red-brown and hairless; twigs are brown, densely resinous glandular, and pubescent.
Leaves are ovate, ovate-elliptic, or oblong, 1.6 – 3.5” long, 1 – 2.4” wide, with a rounded or almost cordate base, acuminate or caudate tip, irregularly doubly serrate margins, and 8 – 14 pairs of lateral veins.
Lower leaf surfaces are densely resinous punctate and pubescent with tufts in vein axils; upper surfaces are densely villous when young.
Infructesnces are single or 2 – 3 in a pendulous raceme, oblong-cylindrical in shape, with pubescent scales.
Often Confused With: Himalayan Birch is mostly confused with Silver Birch, which has creamy to silvery-white exfoliating bark, pendulous twigs that are hairless but resin-dotted, broadly ovate to rhombic leaves that have cuneate (rarely truncate) bases, and mostly hairless lower surfaces with tiny but conspicuous resinous glands; infructescences may be erect or nearly pendulous and have sparsely pubescent scales. Sometimes it is confused with Paper Birch, which has chalky to creamy white exfoliating bark, larger ovate leaves with 9 or fewer pairs of lateral veins, and lower surfaces that are pubescent to velutinous; pendulous infructescences have scales that may be hairless or pubescent.
Other Common Names: White-Barked Himalayan Birch, Indian Paper Birch, Bhojpatra (Indian Himalaya)
Native Area: West Himalayas and Nepal.
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 40 ft tall, 15 – 30 ft spread
11. Jacquemontii Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii)
The Jacqumontii Himalayan Birch is a botanical variant of the Himalayan Birch popular as a landscape tree for its stunningly white papery bark (some say the whitest bark of all birches) and its rich yellow fall color display.
It’s a medium-sized tree with a single trunk and a pyramidal form.
It is very vulnerable to the bronze birch borer, so check your area before planting it.
It is a healthier and longer-lived tree when grown in cooler climates.
It requires consistently moist but well-drained loamy, sandy, or clay soils.
Best grown in full sun, but it will tolerate some light shade.
Identifying Features of the Jacqumonti Himalayan Birch
Jacquemontii Himalayan Birch is quite similar to the type species Himalayan Birch but is noted for having exceptionally white bark.
Its more or less ovate leaves have only 7 – 9 pairs of lateral veins, bases that are mostly rounded, and tips that are mostly acuminate.
Often Confused With: Jacquemontii Birch is a botanical variant of the Himalayan Birch and can be differentiated by its whiter bark and its leaves with 7 – 9 pairs of lateral veins instead of usually 10 – 14 pairs in the Himalayan Birch.
Other Common Names: White-Barked Himalayan Birch
Native Area: West Himalayas (Kashmir) to central Nepal.
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 ft tall, 15 – 30 ft spread
12. Chinese Red Birch (Betula utilis ssp. albosinensis)
Chinese Red Birch is often listed as Betula albosinensis, but plant authorities now consider it to be a subspecies of the Himalayan Birch, Betula utilis.
It is a beautiful specimen tree or planted in groves to appreciate its honey, cinnamon, or maroon peeling bark and its leaves that turn a stunning shade of yellow in the fall.
It is a tough tree that can even handle some drought.
It can be grown in any moist, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade.
This tree has won the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit for ornamental trees.
Identifying Features of the Chinese Red Birch
Chinese Red Birch is a tall tree with orange-red or orange, shiny bark, exfoliating in papery flakes.
Twigs are reddish-brown, hairless, and occasionally resinous glandular.
Leaves are ovate, ovate-elliptic, or ovate-oblong, 1.2 – 3.2” long, 0.8 – 2” wide, with rounded, almost cordate, or rarely broadly cuneate bases, acuminate tips, irregularly and doubly serrate margins, and 10 – 14 lateral veins on each side of the midvein.
Lower leaf surfaces are densely resinous punctate and sparsely villous; upper surfaces are hairless.
Infructescnces are single or 2 – 3 in a raceme and oblong-cylindrical in shape.
Often Confused With: Chinese Red Birch is mostly confused with the types species Himalayan Birch, which has dark reddish-brown bark exfoliating in thin flakes, densely resinous glandular and pubescent twigs, slightly larger leaves with 8 – 14 pairs of lateral veins and upper leaf surfaces that are densely villous when young.
Other Common Names: Chinese Red-Barked Birch, Chinese Paper Birch
Native Area: Endemic to central and western China.
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 ft tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
13. Japanese White Birch (Betula platyphylla ssp mandshurica)
Japanese White Birch is a medium to tall tree with bright white bark and thin spreading branches that end in drooping twigs.
It is a popular landscape tree that thrives in cooler climates in full sun but will tolerate partial shade.
It tolerates most soil types, including sandy or rocky loams, as long as they are consistently moist but well-drained.
In warmer climates, this tree is more susceptible to birch borers.
The species name of this tree is unclear. It is often listed as Betula platyphylla var japonica, but plant authorities say that it is a synonym of Betula platyphylla ssp mandshurica, but they also state that it is part of the Silver Birch Betula pendula taxon. It seems they are still sorting this one out.
Identifying Features of the Japanese White Birch
Japanese White Birch is a tall tree with grayish-white, papery exfoliating bark.
Branches are not pendulous and are dark gray or dark brown and hairless. Twigs are somewhat pendulous, brown, and sparsely resinous glandular.
Leaves are deltoid, ovate-deltoid, rhombic-deltoid, rhombic-ovate, or broadly ovate, 1.2 – 3.5” long and almost as wide, with 5 – 7(- 9) lateral veins on each side of the midvein, truncate, broadly cuneate, or somewhat cordate bases, and acute, acuminate, or caudate-acuminate tips.
Leaf margins are serrated, doubly serrated, or incised-serrated.
Lower leaf surfaces are densely resinous punctate, hairless except tufts in veins axils, while upper surfaces are sparsely pubescent and resinous glandular when young.
Infructescencs are pendulous, oblong, or oblong-cylindric, 0.8 – 2” long, to about ½” wide, with densely pubescent scales.
Often Confused With: Japanese White Birch is mostly confused with Silver Birch, which has similar bark and pendulous twigs, but its leaves are smaller, broadly ovate to rhombic with 5 – 18 pairs of lateral veins and doubly serrated margins, and its infructescences are erect to nearly pendulous, shorter, cylindrical, and have only sparsely pubescent scales.
Other Common Names: Asian White Birch
Native Area: Japan, Korea, central and eastern Siberia, Manchuria.
USDA Growing Zones: 4 (3 with protection) – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 ft tall, 15 – 25 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available (from left to right):
- Dakota Pinnacle Birch Tree Betula platyphylla ‘Fargo’ is a hardy (zones 3 -7) tree that tolerates poor soils, urban conditions, and pollution. It has beautiful creamy white bark, and it turns vibrant yellow in the fall, one of the first to change color and the last to lose its leaves. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees
- First Editions® Parkland Pillar® Birch Betula platyphylla ‘Jefpark’ has compact, strongly ascending branches that are nearly vertical, creating a narrowly columnar or fastigiate form. The bark is smooth and white, and the leaves turn golden yellow in the fall. – Image via Nature Hills
14. Water Birch (Betula occidentalis)
Depending on its habitat, it may remain as a shrub or grow into a medium-sized tree.
It has dark red-brown to blackish, smooth bark that does not peel like many other birch trees.
This tree is an important food and lodge material for the North American beaver.
Best grown in naturally soggy water-logged soil in full sun to partial shade.
Identifying Features of the Water Birch
Water Birch is a shrub to medium-sized tree with smooth dark reddish-brown to bronze bark that does not exfoliate and has pale, horizontally expanded lenticels.
Twigs do not smell of wintergreen and are hairless to sparsely pubescent, covered with conspicuous, reddish, resinous glands.
Leaves are broadly ovate to rhombic-ovate with 2 – 6 pairs of lateral veins, 0.4 – 2.3” long, 0.4 – 1.8” wide, with truncate, rounded, or cuneate bases, mostly acute or sometimes short-acuminate tips, and sharply and coarsely serrate or irregularly doubly serrate margins that are typically not toothed near the base.
Lower leaf surfaces are sparsely to moderately pubescent, with tiny resinous glands.
Infructescences are erect to nearly pendulous, cylindrical, 0.8 – 1.5” long, 0.3 – 0.6” wide, and shattering with fruits in the fall. Scales are mostly hairless.
Often Confused With: Water Birch is mostly confused with River Birch, which always has exfoliating bark, often very strongly exfoliating in multiple wide layers, whereas the bark of Water Birch does not exfoliate. It is also sometimes confused with Paper Birch, which has white to grayish bark that also exfoliates in thin papery strips.
Other Common Names: Western Birch, Western Red Birch, Red Birch, River Birch, Black Birch
Native Area: Western North America, from Alaska, USA, east to Ontario, Canada, south to California, east to New Mexico.
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 15 – 40 ft tall, 10 – 30 ft spread
15. Erman’s Birch (Betula ermanii)
Erman’s Birch is a popular shade tree for its unusually dense foliage. It is often planted in parks, borders, and gardens as a specimen tree or sometimes in groves in a woodland garden.
It is a tall variable species with creamy-white peeling bark and glossy green leaves that turn a lovely golden-yellow in the fall.
It is highly adaptable to most soil types, provided that they are well-drained and moist.
Best grown in full sun to partial shade.
Identifying Features of the Erman’s Birch
Erman’s Birch is a medium-sized tree with grayish-white bark exfoliating in thin papery sheets.
Branches are red-brown and hairless; twigs are brown-green, densely villous, and resinous glandular. Bud scales are densely silky villous.
Leaves are ovate, broadly ovate, or deltoid-ovate, 0.8 – 2.8” long, 0.5 – 2” wide, with 8 – 12 lateral veins on each side of the midvein, an almost rounded, truncate, broadly cuneate, or almost cordate base, and an acute, acuminate, or caudate-acuminate tip.
Lower leaf surfaces are resinous punctate and villous; upper surfaces are sparsely villous; margins are irregularly and doubly serrate.
Infructenscences are ovoid or oblong, often nearly sessile.
Often Confused With: Erman’s Birch is mostly confused with Japanese White Birch, which has mostly hairless and sparsely resinous glandular twigs, variable leaves that are mostly deltoid to somewhat ovate that have 5 – 7(- 9) pairs of lateral veins, margins that may be serrated, doubly serrated, or incised-serrated, and surfaces that are mostly hairless to sparsely pubescent.
Other Common Names: Gold Birch, Golden Birch, Stone Birch
Native Area: Northeast China, Korea, Japan, and Russian Far East.
USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 40 ft tall, 20 – 40 ft spread
16. Gray Birch (Betula populifolia)
Gray Birch is one of the more common birch species that grows as a multi-trunked large shrub or small tree that is suitable for smaller yards due to its compact size.
Woodworkers like its wood for its versatility and malleability.
While it tolerates poor and drier soils, it’s best grown in medium to wet, well-drained, sandy, or rocky organic loams on the acidic side, in full sun to part shade.
It is a short-lived, very cold-hardy tree best mulched around the root zones in areas with warmer summers to keep the roots cool.
Pruning generally is not required, but if necessary, avoid pruning in spring when the sap is running.
If conditions are right, it will spread readily via suckers.
It has high resistance to the bronze birch borer.
Identifying Features of the Gray Birch
Gray Birch is a narrowly columnar, suckering large shrub or small tree, usually multi-trunked but occasionally single-trunked. Twigs are rough-warty.
Its bark is chalky white, does not exfoliate, and has dark chevron patches appearing below each branch base.
Leaves are glossy green, deltoid, 2 – 3” long, 1.6 – 2.4” wide, with long-acuminate tips, and typically truncate bases. Margins are doubly serrated.
Infructescences are pendulous, maturing in late summer.
Often Confused With: Gray Birch is mostly confused with Paper Birch, which has exfoliating white bark and larger ovate leaves with acute to short-acuminate tips. Sometimes it is confused with Silver Birch, which has exfoliating bark, smaller broadly ovate to rhombic leaves with cuneate (rarely truncate) bases, and infructescences that may be erect or almost pendulous.
Other Common Names: Grey Birch, White Birch, Wire Birch, Fire Birch, Oldfield Birch
Native Area: Northeastern North America, from southern Ontario east to Nova Scotia in Canada, and south to New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania in the USA, with disjunct populations in Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina, USA.
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 6
Average Size at Maturity: 20 – 40 ft tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
Some Cultivars Available (from left to right):
- Royal Frost® Birch Tree Betula x ‘Royal Frost’ is a white-barked and purple-leaved cross between Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’ (white bark) and Betula ‘Crimson Frost’ (purple leaves) for a beautiful contrast of colors, and its hardy in zones 3 – 7. – Image via Fast-Growing-Trees
- Whitespire Birch Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’ is a hardy (zones 3 – 7), medium-sized, fast-growing tree with white bark and dark green leaves that turn a rich yellow in the fall. – Image via Nature Hills
17. Curly Birch (Betula pendula ssp pendula or var carelica)
Curly Birch is a unique genetic variant of Silver Birch.
It has a crooked, bushy habit thanks to a genetic mutation that causes it to twist toward the trunk, creating prominent curly grains in its wood that are prized for making specialty wood products like small boxes, knife handles, frames, bowls, pens, and other items.
It is often referred to as Betula pendula var carelica, but plant authorities currently call it Betula pendula ssp pendula.
Identifying Features of the Curly Birch
Curly Birch is a genetic mutation of the Silver Birch that causes its trunk to twist, creating abnormal annual growth rings that are wavelike and create v-shaped patterns when cut in cross-section (against the grain).
Bud formation is abnormally abundant, leading to heavy branching and resulting in a very bushy habit with a rounded to somewhat flattened crown and branches that are typically quite thick and crooked.
The trunk and branches are typically lumpy with ring-like thickenings and ridges, and the bark at the tree’s base is generally very thick and deeply grooved.
Trees with external signs of curly-grained wood may still lack the curly-grain wood pattern. And, a tree looking like a normal Silver Birch, upon felling and cutting, may, in fact, be a Curly Birch.
Its leaves may also be unique but are quite variable and unreliable for identification.
Often Confused With: It is often confused with the type species Silver Birch, but Curly Birch tends to be a shorter tree with more branches that are much stouter and crooked, and it shows an abnormally high amount of buds and lumpy ring-like thickenings on trunks and branches.
Other Common Names: N/A
Native Area: Primarily Finland and western Russia. Isolated, disjunct populations occur throughout northern Europe in Finland, Sweden, Russia, and the Baltic countries.
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 15 – 50 ft tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
Beautiful Birch Trees
Growing Birch Trees in Your Garden
Birch trees make a beautiful addition to any garden where the climate is right. They are easy to grow, low-maintenance, and offer year-round interest with their unique and colorful bark.
As with any tree, if you have decided to grow a birch tree, it is critical to do a little research to ensure that your tree does well in your yard.
First, make sure you know your USDA Planting Zones. Most birches thrive in cool or cold climates, and few do well south of USDA zone 6, though there are a few important exceptions (River Birch, for example).
Next, check your chosen tree’s soil, light, and moisture requirements and compare that to your site. Check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard for more information on choosing the right tree for the right spot in your yard. If you choose the right tree for your location, you will be rewarded with a healthy tree that requires little or no maintenance.
Birch trees tend to prefer acidic soils of any type, richness, rockiness, clay, etc. Some will tolerate alkaline soils, and others prefer richer soil and will not thrive in poor soils. So, make sure you read up on your chosen tree for its preferences.
Most birches tend to prefer consistent moisture, and only a few will tolerate dry soils or drought. Though they tend to prefer moist to wet soils, most prefer well-drained soils. A few will thrive in soggy, waterlogged soils, so again, be sure to read up on your chosen tree.
Most birch trees prefer growing in full sun, but some species will tolerate partial shade, though all will do poorly in full shade.
Birches seldom need pruning unless damaged or if a particular shape is desired. They are best pruned when dormant; always avoid pruning in the spring when the sap is running.
As always, you should try to choose species native to your area to enhance biodiversity and wildlife values. Wherever native birch trees are available, I strongly encourage you to plant them. They will do better in your location, require little to no maintenance, and you do not have to risk introducing potentially invasive species into your environment.
Several birch trees have been widely introduced and naturalized outside their native range due to escaping cultivation, and a handful of those are considered invasive in some areas.
The Bronze Birch Borer
Birch trees tend to be fairly resistant to pests and disease. However, unhealthy trees not growing in the most ideal conditions (poor site, drought, or other stress) will be much more susceptible.
The two most common insect pests of birch trees are the Birch Leafminer (Fenusa pusilla) and the Bronze Birch Borer (Agrilus anxius).
Bronze Birch Borers are closely related to the Emerald Ash Borer that has devastated ash trees throughout North America.
The Bronze Birch Borer, however, is native to North America. It is much more prevalent in the warmer southern end of the birches’ range than it is in the northern parts. Since it is native to North America, the North American species tend to show the highest resistance.
The white-barked birches tend to be the most susceptible. River Birch is the most resistant species, and the European and Asian birches have no resistance to it at all. It is not recommended to plant any introduced birches in the eastern USA because of this.
This pest, unlike the Emerald Ash Borer, tends only to kill trees that are already weakened by other stresses.
So far, it is not known to have been introduced outside its native range, so European and Asian birches in their native habitats are still safe from infestation.
Interesting Facts About Birch Trees
The oldest confirmed fossils in the Betulaceae family are from 94 – 83 million years ago from eastern North America.
The oldest confirmed Betula species, Betula leopoldae, was found in 52 million-year-old deposits found in British Columbia, Canada.
Birch is closely related to alder, the two genera of the Betuloideae subfamily of Betulaceae. Betula and Alnus diverged from each other roughly 60 million years ago.
Human Uses of Birch Trees
Perhaps the most famous historical use of birch trees is that of the birch-bark canoes made by Native Americans and later early settlers in North America.
Birch was an integral part of the lives of Native Americans who also used the bark to cover their wigwam shelters, sewing, clothing, food preparation, and storage. They also often used it in their art for basket weaving designs, children’s toys, beadwork, and other crafts.
Birch bark was also widely used to make footwear, and in ancient times it was used for writing Sanskript scriptures and texts. Today it is still sometimes used for writing sacred mantras that are then placed in an amulet and worn for protection.
Birch bark and sap were once the source of birch beer and are still sometimes distilled to produce oil of wintergreen. Oil of wintergreen is a compound called methyl salicylate, a popular medicinal rub made of menthol and a natural aspirin compound. I am wearing some wintergreen now for the painful kink in my neck I woke up with, and it is very soothing, easing my pain and giving me more mobility.
Birch bark, sap, and leaves were also used medicinally as an astringent, diuretic, and anti-inflammatory, and the bark can be used as a field dressing to bandage wounds if necessary. The bark of the Cherry Birch was often brewed into a tea rich in Vitamin C.
Birch is a fantastic fuel source for firewood because it burns hot, and the flammable bark makes a great firestarter. When I lived in the interior of BC, Canada, where it grew plentifully, I used it to keep my family warm through the cold Canadian winters. However, in some parts of the world, unfortunately, it is being threatened due to its overuse as firewood.
Eskimos would use Dwarf and Bog Birches for tinder for their fires since it would burn, even when wet.
Woodworkers often use birch for its versatility and malleability. It is popular for boxes, knife shafts, and small furniture items. Curly Birch, in particular, is popular in woodturning projects for making bowls and pens.
Downy Birch was once a popular food source for northern Europeans and northern Asians and is still sometimes used today. The inner bark is harvested and ground into flour and then baked into bread.
Of course, birch is also used as shade trees, border trees, and in woodland gardens worldwide.
If you plan to wildcraft birch bark to use in crafts, medicines, or beer, please do so ethically. Never girdle or ring the tree by removing the bark down to the inner bark all the way around the circumference of the tree, or you will kill it. Also, follow the rules of ethical wildcrafting to ensure you are not over-harvesting and harming the local population.
Wildlife Values Birch Trees Provide
Birch, of course, also provides abundant wildlife values in its native range.
Its buds, catkins, leaves, twigs, and bark are all food sources for hungry birds, squirrels, moose, deer, bears, raccoons, beavers, and other wildlife.
Numerous insects use the trees as a food source and/or a habitat, including many Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species.
The trees provide nesting sites for birds and squirrels and add structural diversity to the forests and provide larger animals with shelter from the elements or a place to rest at night under their canopy.
Birch are such beautiful, bountiful, and amazing trees. Now that we have learned so much more about these trees, we can go and use our skills to identify the birch around us. And we can also use our knowledge to buy the perfect birch for our home garden.
I hope you have learned to admire this beautiful tree as much as I do!
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Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences.
Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees.
She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing.
When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.