We all know the birch tree for its showy, white to gray peeling barks. They are staples in moist woodlands and are most likely found in colder climates. But when they are planted in landscapes, they offer more than just shade because they are true showstoppers. If you are considering having birch trees in your home, you must first know the best types that you should consider.
This post features some of the most notable birch tree types out there. It also lists some useful information that you can refer to after. So, if you are in for everything birch tree, read on.
Birch tree facts
There is more to birch trees aside from their showy barks. Here are some interesting facts about birches that you should know about.
- There are around 60 species of birch trees distributed in almost all temperate climates around the world.
- It does not survive in dry climates because it has a shallow root system.
- It is known for its longevity. On average, birch trees live for 50 years but some types could live up to 200 years or more.
- The pollens released by the birch tree is considered as the reason behind 20% of the total cases of hay fever in the northern hemisphere.
- There are 11 species of birch trees that are listed as endangered species by the IUCN in 2011.
- Birch trees are significant to native American culture and tradition as a source of food, log, and materials to build traditional huts and canoes.
- The oldest evidence of birch tree barks being used as paper or as writing tablets trace back to the first century.
- Birch saps are used in China, Russia, and northern Europe to make birch syrups which are used like maple syrups. They are also used in making cosmetics, soaps, and shampoos.
Birch tree symbolism
Being one of the oldest tree species in the world means that it is also widely referenced in historical and biblical texts. As such, the birch tree is surrounded with myths, folk stories, and symbolisms. Here are some of the most notable symbolisms of the birch tree.
- It is used in Native American culture as the center pole of their structures because the birch tree is a symbol of fruitful beginnings. Other than this, it also represents home, shelter, and important gatherings.
- Among the Celts, the birch tree is a symbol of stability and renewal. It also represents adaptability because the tree can survive harsh cold climates. It is the center point of the Beltane Festival.
- It is also called the ‘Lady of the Woods’ in Celtic folklore and is highly associated with feminine energies including fertility and nurturance. It is associated with fertility goddesses such as Frigga and Freya of the Norse mythology, Eostre of the Anglo-Saxon tradition and Venus of Roman mythology.
- In Siberia, the birch is a sacred tree and is believed to be the ladder that connects heaven and earth.
- For the Chinese, birch trees represent rejuvenation and connection.
- It is the state tree of New Hampshire and the national tree of Finland, Russia, and Sweden.
Birch tree identification
The birch tree is most identifiable with its bark but here are some other characteristics that you should look out for proper birch tree identification.
Birch tree leaves are either triangular or heart shaped. The leaves also have finely serrated margins, along with pointed tips and a round base. They are arranged in an alternate fashion and turn into yellow, orange, or red during fall.
Some distinct differences show depending on the type of birch tree. For example, gray birches have triangular shaped leaves while river birches are diamond shaped. White birches on the other hand, have more prominent serrations.
Birch tree barks are mostly white or gray but there are also bronze, brown, silver, and brown birch barks. Birch tree barks also have smooth barks of papery texture, peeling into more papery layers with horizontal streaks called lenticels. Their peeling habit proves as showstoppers in winter gardens.
Both male and female birch trees produce catkins in either summer or fall. These small flowers bloom at the same time the foliage of the birch tree appears. Flowers from male birches are 2cm longer than female catkins.
Types of birch trees
There are at least 60 listed types of birch tree distributed in the northern hemisphere. Of these 60, the following would be the most popular types as they are used in landscaping and contributions in the lumber and woodworks industry, and wildlife conservation.
1. Bog Birch (Betula pumila)
This one is also called the swamp birch because it thrives well along streams, bogs, and swamps. It grows to up to 13ft, grows in clumps with woody stems and branches as well as coral-like leaves that turn reddish-orange in the fall. It tolerates acidic and alkaline soils and is the perfect addition to any rain gardens.
2. Cherry Birch or sweet birch (Betula lenta)
Also called as the spice birch or the black birch, this one is sought-after because of its shade, its wood that darkens into a mahogany-like lumber and being the source of wintergreen oil. It grows to up to 70ft offering a shade cover of at least 40ft. It is identifiable for its shiny red-brown bark with scales like the cherry tree.
It grows from a single trunk, has ovate lime green leaves, and produces white flowers in the summer and followed by small berries in the fall. It is disease resistant and attracts wildlife for its fruits and butterflies for pollination. Its sap is also used to make birch beer.
3. Chinese Red Birch (Betula Albosinensis)
This one is distinct for its red-brown papery bark which peels into more papery layers with white horizontal strips. The leaves are also striking for its matte texture, and yellow green color that goes full bright yellow during fall. It is native to western China but has grown scarce through the years. It is drought tolerant, reaches a height of 50ft and a spread of 30ft.
4. Downy Birch or white birch tree (Betula Pubescens)
The downy birch thrives in extremely cold climates, growing wild in Western Europe, Russia and in Iceland. It grows to 60ft with a spread of 40ft. It is a very useful tree in its native ranges. Its bronze-brown bark is turned into flour to make traditional delicacies.
The bark is also dried and made into tea because it is a natural diuretic and an anti-inflammatory remedy. It is also important in carpentry and cabinetry. It gets its name from its fuzzy hair-like overgrowth.
5. Dwarf Birch (Betula nana)
This one is rarely planted in landscapes because it only thrives in very cold weather. It is also called the arctic birch because it is an important ground cover for cold climate vegetation.
It grows in between 6inches to 3ft and thrives in rocky, acidic, and nutrient deficient soils. It is very woody, with branches extending out with clusters of dark green leaves that are curved at the edges.
6. Erman’s Birch (Betula ermanii)
This birch grows in multiple trunks and is distinct for its copper brown bark which peels into layers of tan and cream tones. It grows to up to 70ft, has a conical shape when it reaches maturity, and a dense foliage composed of heart-shaped leaves.
The leaves are deep green most seasons but turn yellow during fall. It is commonly used in urban parks because of its shade cover. It can also be planted in home landscapes with vast garden areas.
7. Gray Birch (Betula Populifolia)
This one is more of an oversized shrub than a tree. It gets its name from its grayish-white bark with dark brown dents. They thrive in moist soils and grow in multiple trunks.
It has ovate, deep green and airy leaves that are curved at the edges. Since it only grows to a maximum height of 20ft, it is often used in home landscapes. It can also be conditioned to grow smaller to be planted in more compact yards.
8. Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii)
This one has a high ornamental value because of its striking appearance. It has remarkable white barks with a papery texture, yellow or green flowers during spring, with the signature ovate leaves with finely serrated edges of birch trees.
It grows from a single trunk into a medium size tree. It thrives better in cooler temperatures. It can grow to up to 50ft and is native to the West Himalayas.
9. Japanese White Birch (Betula platyphylla ‘Japanica’)
Also called the Asian white birch, it is known for its slender, white bark, dark scales, long, woody branches and lots of drooping branchlets. It grows in between 40-50ft and prefers wet, sandy or rocky soils.
This one is a beautiful landscape specimen tree in northern regions where the climate is very cool. While it could also survive in warmer climates, planting this birch there would make it vulnerable to borer’s disease.
10. Paper Bark Birch (Betula papyrifera)
This one is native to the Northern US and in Canada. It gets its name from its paper thin, white bark which peels into paper-like layers. It produces yellow flowers in the fall and can grow from a single trunk or in clumps. It grows between 45-100ft.
It is also named as the canoe birch as it was used extensively by native Americans in building canoes. Its catkins on the other hand are a steady supply of food for wildlife. This one is birch bronze borer resistant.
11. River Birch (Betula nigra)
This fast-growing birch has become a famous landscape tree. It can grow in a clumping form or from a single trunk. Its bark is notable for its reddish- brown bark that reveals salmon pink layers when it exfoliates.
Its ovate leaves are dark green most days but turn butter yellow in the fall. It is one of the few heat and drought tolerant birches, growing in between 40-70ft and is resistant to bronze borers.
12. Silver Birch (Betula pendula or B. verrucosa)
This birch is distinct for its growing habit that starts as pyramidal and then rounded at maturity. It grows from a single trunk, with white bark and dark gray marks. The bark peels into paper-like layers. Depending on its cultivar, it can grow in between 40-80ft. It thrives well in cooler climates.
It would not last long in warmer temperatures. It has lost its popularity as a landscape tree because of its vulnerability to bronze birch borer.
13. Water Birch (Betula occidentalis or Betula fontinalis)
As the name suggests, this birch thrives in streambanks specifically in mountainous areas where they grow in thick clusters. It is also distinguishable for its relatively smooth bark with a cocoa brown color.
The bark does not peel but it has white dents all over. It grows in between 25-50ft and is significant as lodge material as well as a source of food for the North American beaver.
14. Weeping Birches (Betula pendula var.)
This one gets its name from its pendulous growth habit. Its branches droop down but overall form a pyramidal form. It has a dense foliage composed of heart-shaped leaves.
It is a good focal point in any landscape because of its mighty form, decorative catkins, and a golden yellow color during fall. It has a white bark and dark gray to black trunks and branches. Depending on the cultivar, it grows in between 40-70ft.
15. Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
This one is considered as the birch with the longest lifespan as it could live for 150-300 years. It gets its name from its smooth gold to bronzy yellow bark which peels in horizontal strips. It grows from a single trunk. Its sap can be tapped to create beverages that taste like root beer.
It is also listed as one of the most important trees for lumber production in North America as well as a significant source of food and habitat for wildlife. It grows between 40-80ft.
Where do birch trees grow?
Birch trees are native to northern, colder climates. They are popular winter landscapes in rural towns in the northern hemisphere because it cannot tolerate heat and dry conditions. It also does not fare well in windy locations. It thrives in moist, acidic to alkaline soils. It basically grows in hardiness zones of 2-6.
How to grow and care for birch trees
Regardless of the type of birch tree, all types are covered by general care and propagating tips. Here are the basic growing and caring requirements for birch trees.
- Light: Birch trees thrive with full sun to dappled light in colder climates. If planted as border plants in landscapes, it must be placed in an area where taller trees could provide shade to it or alone in a highly shaded part of the garden.
- Soil: These trees prefer cool and moist soils. They could also tolerate moist rocky, sandy, and loam soils. It loves acidic soils, but it could also thrive in slightly alkaline soils. Mulching it with shredded bark or leaves as well as wood chips are the best options for birch trees.
- Water: If you are in a location where your birch trees could compete with other plants for water, it might require frequent watering. If planted along natural habitat ranges such as streams, riverbanks, bogs, or ponds, watering should be done once every three weeks.
- Temperature and humidity: As have been mentioned several times, birch trees love cool climates where winters are long, and summers are still cooler than tropical to subtropical climates. It does not tolerate heat and drought although some types do.
- Fertilizer: You need to fertilize birch trees because if not, they could be more susceptible to bronze birch borers. For this, you have to purchase a slow-release granular fertilizer. Apply this beneath a layer of mulch during spring.
- Pruning: This tree does not require regular pruning as it retains its shape as long as it is in the right environment. But if you want occasional pruning, do not do so in between winter and spring or else you will be dealing with messy sap all over the trunk.
Birch trees pests and diseases
This tree, like other trees, can also be susceptible to various pests and diseases. So, to know which ones to avoid through proper maintenance and to look out for to make early interventions, these are birch tree pests and diseases that must be checked.
- Bronze birch borer: This is perhaps the most lethal problem for birch trees. Boring beetles directly attack the trunk and weakens the tree by interrupting sap flow. Birch borer disease is indicated by a thinning crown or wounds all over the trunk.
- Birch leafminer: This one is the effect burrowing leaf miner insects which niche inside the trunk of birch trees to sweep nutrients off. It is often indicated by the green spots found in the leaves of the trees. When the spots turn into brown splotches, interventions might be critical. It would not kill the tree, but it will surely disfigure it and weaken the tree.
Other diseases and pests that weaken birch trees would be the following:
- European or common aphids
- Heart rots
How long do birch trees live?
The average lifespan of birch trees would be 40 years. But of course, there are notable birch tree types that live for hundreds of years. For example, paper birch lasts to up to 70 years while sweet birch could live for up to 250 years. The yellow birch on the other hand, could have a lifespan of 150-300 years.
Why do birch trees have black streaks on their trunk?
The black streaks in the trunk of birch trees are called lenticels and they are there for an important reason. Birch trees photosynthesize through their barks and the black streaks enable gas exchange between the air and the birch tree.
The number of lenticels in a birch tree is an indicator of their growth rate. This means that the more lenticels found in birch tree bark, the more it is mature and the greater its growth rate.
Which birch tree has the whitest bark?
The Himalayan birch has the whitest bark of all birch trees. Unlike other birch trees, the white color of the bark does not change even when it has already achieved maturity. It has great ornamental value especially as the focal point of winter landscapes.
Birch Trees vs Aspen Trees
These two trees are often confused with each other because they both have light colored barks, and their leaves both turn yellow in the fall. Besides these, there are other differences between birches and aspens.
|Bark||Turns lighter and peels in maturity.||Turns rough and does not peel.|
|Leaves||Ovate and serrated by the edges.||Round and with finer tooth in the margins.|
|Height||Average height is 40-50ft.||Average height is 20-80ft.|
|Root system||Shallow||Deep and aggressive|
|Climate (Hardiness Zone)||2-6||2-8|
|Regeneration||Regenerates from sprouts in roots and trunks.||Regenerates from sprouts found in the roots.|
Where to buy birch trees?
Except for some types such as the Chinese red birch, you can buy birch trees from your local nurseries. Online, you should find birch trees for sale on the following sites:
- Nature Hills
- The Tree Center
- McKay Nursery
- Arbor Day
- Wilson Bros Gardens
- Bower and Branch
- Cold Stream Farm
- Bark Canoe
- Tree Plantation
Birch trees are beautiful landscape trees that are hard to miss in any garden because of their signature peeling, pale colored barks. They are loved for their shade capacity, appearance, and longevity. It is quite low maintenance if planted in the right soil and within the right climate and temperature.
The tree also has an interesting symbolic profile in many countries in the northern hemisphere. Aside from this, it also significantly contributes to woodwork and lumber industries, in the preservation of cultural traditions through delicacies, in making syrups, and in wildlife conservation. With all things considered, birch trees are some of the best trees to choose for your home landscape.