Birches get their name from the ancient Sanskrit language. “Birch” evolved from . "Bhurga", which signifies “a tree whose bark is used for writing upon” A distinguishing feature of most birches is their peeling, curling bark which it is easy to believe, especially with the white barked ones, could substitute for paper.

Birches are popular ornamental trees in the northern United States and in Canada because of their graceful habit and peeling, textured bark. Canoe or Paper Birches (Betula papyrifera) are most easily recognized by their white bark, which was used by Indians to make canoes and cover wigwams. European Birches (Betula pendula) also have white bark, however I do not recommend using the European Birch in the home landscape because of its serious susceptibility to borer insects. Paper Birches are strictly northern plants.

River Birch is a good replacement for the white barked birches if they have been a problem. River Birches (Betula nigra) are native to lowlands and along stream banks. They grow in the wild as far south as northern Florida and also do well on the west coast.

Size: Birches reach a mature height of 40 to 70 feet. Typically their spread is about 2/3 of their height. Paper Birches grow about 18 to 24 inches a year over a period of 20 years and mature in 60 to 70 years. River Birches are fast growers, adding 30 to 40 feet over 20 years. Relatively short-lived, birches rarely live longer than 125 years.

Foliage: Birches are deciduous, losing their leaves every fall. Depending on the type of birch, leaves are either somewhat wedge- shaped or more egg-shaped with pointed tips. Their edges are toothed. Light yellow green on top and paler underneath when they emerge in May, they turn a clear to golden yellow before they (drop)in October. 

Flowers and Fruit: All birches have two kinds of greenish-brown flowers called catkins. Male catkins form in late summer, but do not open until the following spring. Female catkins appear in early spring, before the leaves unfold. Both kinds are shaped like 2 to 3 inch long miniature cigars. The male flowers hang down, while the females stand upright. They are pale-green to yellow green in the spring, but become light brown over the summer and early fall. The seeds they produce attract all kinds of wildlife including grouse, squirrels, deer and songbirds such as chickadees, titmice and several types of woodpecker.

  Many other birches are used in landscape. Gray Birch, Himalayan Birch, Chinese paper birch and Monarch birch are all occasionally used. Like the other birches, they should be viewed as high maintenance, short-lived landscape trees.

Birch Choices In Most Garden Centers
Variety Size Comment Grower
River Birch, Betula nigra Height: 40’ NATIVE; Zone 4 - ?; Resistant to birch borer. The bark exfoliates to expose tan, pink, or orange colored younger stems. J.F. Schmidt & Son;
Click for picture Spread: 35’    
Dura-Heatâ Birch, Betula nigra ‘BNMTF’ Height: 40’ Zone 5 - ?; Reported to good resistance to bronze birch borer. Heat resistant, glossy, deep green foliage gives this cultivar a fresh look thought the heat of the summer, even in southern U.S. Attractive exfoliating bark is a medley of cream and tan colors. J.F. Schmidt & Son;
Click for picture Spread: 30’    
Heritageâ Birch, Betula nigra ‘Cully’ Height : 40’ Reported to have good resistance to bronze birch borer. A selection River Birch chosen for its lighter colored bark and large, glossy, light green leaves. The peeling bark exposes mottled patches of cream, organge and pinkish tan colors. J.F. Schmidt & Son;
Click for picture Spread: 30’    
Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera Height: 50’ NATIVE; Best in Zones 5 north to 2. In the cooler environment this is the most permanent and desireable of all white barked Birches. Slow to turn white, but a perfect chalk-white when older. Beautiful as a single stem tree or clump form. J.F. Schmidt & Son;
Click for picture Spread: 35’    
Whitespire Sr. Birch, Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire Sr.’ Height: 40’ Zone 4; Whitespire “Senior” is vegetatively propagated directly from the original, superior tree in Wisconsin. It has shown resistance to Bronze Birch Borer. J.F. Schmidt & Son;

Click for picture

Spread: 25’




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