How to Plant, Grow and Care For An American Classic

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Birch trees are one of those plants that evoke memories of childhood and capture the imagination. The striking look and delicate form are distinctive in the American landscape.

Native species grow in most states, and due to the unique look and texture of their bark, they are possibly one of the most recognized trees, even to the casual observer.

Although common, birch trees are a little fussy about their conditions. They can sometimes be difficult to grow well. Stick with us and we’ll give you a bunch of tips and tricks to make sure you get the best out of your birch tree.

What is a Birch Tree?

birch in winter

The Betula genus includes about 60 species spread out across temperate regions of the globe.

Birch trees in the ideal environmental conditions can live for well over 100 years, but they generally last up to 50 years in the home garden because they’re particular about their growing conditions and prone to insect problems.

Birch is a deciduous tree, so loses all its foliage in winter, but the bark makes it stand out even on the most desolate winter days.

Native Americans utilized birch for utensils and canoes because it was lightweight and strong at the same time.

Birch prefers cooler climates and doesn’t do well in dry or hot climates. They don’t like drought conditions and won’t do well if you live somewhere that regularly experiences dry spells.

growing birch tree

Best Species of Birch Trees for the Home

There are about 18 native North American birches, but we will look at the most common whether they’re native or not.

Different cultivars have different characteristics from the parent species, including multi-trunked versions, varying sizes, and some with particularly attractive yellow leaves in fall that make a wonderful picture when everything else is bland.

Paper Birch

birch paper

This may be the most recognizable birch thanks to the bark that turns white and peels off in papery layers. The bark of the young tree is brown and turns white when the tree is around a decade old. It’s the white bark that begins to peel.

Tiny flowers form about May around the same time as the new leaves appear. Male flowers are yellow, while the female ones are red or green.

Paper birch (B. papyrifera) like cooler climates and summers that don’t exceed 70ºF on average. It doesn’t enjoy the heat and will struggle in polluted areas.

‘Prairie Dream’ and ‘Renassaince Oasis’ show good resistance to borers.

Gray Birch

birch gray

This native to the North Western United States can be single or multi-trunked and grows up to 50 feet tall.

Gray birch (B. populifolia) branches grow low down the trunk nearly to the ground. It is usually a bushy tree. The bark grows darker as the tree ages, and the leaves turn bright yellow during fall.

If you live in an area with heavy snowfalls, gray birch could be for you. The trunks of this tree are very flexible and have been known to bend to the ground without snapping. ‘Whitespire’ is a particularly pretty and hardy cultivar.

‘Crimson Frost’ has crimson-colored leaves during the summer and fall.

River Birch

birch river

B. nigra is one birch that is okay with heat and humidity. Its suitable environment extends into the southeastern United States. Sometimes the bark forms multiple layers of color ranging from grey to light brown.

Not only tolerant of heat and humidity, but river birch is also tolerant of wet soil. Plant it on the banks of rivers and streams, rain gardens, and low-lying areas. It is a rapid grower and reasonably resistant to birch borer.

‘Heritage’ is one of the most popular and adaptable cultivars.

Sweet Birch

birch sweet

Also called black or cherry birch (B. lenta), this tree has a smooth red to brown bark that is very different from the white bark varieties. As sweet birch ages, the bark turns black and sheds off in large plate shapes. This is a particularly attractive birch tree, especially when the leaves turn gold in the fall, contrasting against the black bark.

Sweet birch grows to around 40 feet tall and is known to live for up to 200 years.

Yellow Birch

birch yellow

Yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis) needs a large property because it grows up to 75 feet tall. It’s a unique-looking tree with rough textured bark that almost looks like polished brass. It peels off in yellow slivers.

If you have leafminer problems, yellow birch is perfect because it is very resistant, unlike many of the white-bark birches.

Yellow birch has valuable hardwood used in many applications. From flooring to furniture, and tool handles, this wood polishes to a high, quality sheen.

Weeping, Silver or European White

birch weeping

B. pendula goes by many names. This European species needs mile summers and cold winters to be happy. It also needs consistent moisture and careful pruning in case any fungal diseases come visiting.

But if you’re willing to do the work, this species is stunning with its graceful, weeping branches covered in delicate, dancing leaves.

Propagating Birch Trees

There are multiple ways to bring birches to your yard. You can take cuttings from an existing tree or purchase one at a nursery.

Cuttings

The best way to propagate birch is through greenwood cuttings. This should be using a young branch that can bend easily.

Cut the branch about a quarter inch below a leaf node. Make sure the cut branch has at least three to four leaf nodes on it. Remove all foliage from the bottom two-thirds of the branch.

As soon as you cut the branch and remove the leaves, dip the growing end in rooting hormone. If you let the birch branch dry out during this process, it will lessen your chances of propagating success.

If you can’t plant or use rooting hormone straight away, store the cutting in a plastic bag with a little moisture. Spray the bag inside with some water.

Plant in small containers filled with seed-raising soil. Use a pencil to create a hole and insert the cutting before firming down. Plant a few in each pot. Keep the soil moist.

You will know if roots have grown because the cutting will grow new leaves, or there will be resistance when pulled gently. The process from cutting to replanting should take about eight weeks.

When the roots are strong, plant in bigger pots or directly in the soil. Be sure to harden them off before planting.

How to Care For Birch Trees

birch in the garden

There are birch trees that grow really well in USDA Hardiness Zones 2 to 9, though not all species grow in all of these Zones. Ask around, and you may find a variety that can grow where you are.

Birch trees love cool, moist soil, with sunshine on their foliage. The trick is to find a spot where the soil is shaded and will remain cool, and where the tree gets sunshine for at least three-quarters of the day.

Birch have shallow root systems and they are sensitive to hot, dry soils.

You need slightly acidic soil with a pH of around 5.0 to 6.5. It pays to test your soil with a pH reader because birch may turn yellow in soils greater than 6.5 pH.

Because of the shallow root system, avoid areas with poor drainage or if the area floods even on occasion.

Mulch your birch tree well from day one of being planted in the ground. This ensures the soil stays moist in the heat and keeps weeds and other plants from competing for nutrients.

Give your growing birch trees regular deep waterings rather than infrequent shallow watering.

Fertilizing and Pruning

Birch doesn’t really need fertilizing unless the soil is deficient and the tree shows the signs of stunted growth, yellowing leaves, or sickness.

If you do fertilize, apply it in late spring or early fall. Too late in the season and you may get a flush of growth that won’t harden off before the cold of winter sets in.

Slow-release fertilizers are best for birch.

Never prune more than 25 percent of birch at one time because it will really suffer. Don’t prune between May and August if possible because the leaf borer is attracted to fresh pruning cuts at this time.

At other times. prune to shape and for aesthetics.

Companion Planting for Birch Trees

If you choose to underplant your birch trees, you have a few choices:

  • Dogwood
  • Witch Hazel
  • Hellebores
  • Primrose
  • Hostas
  • Grasses
  • English Ivy

Problems and Solutions for Growing Birch Trees

Birches have a reputation for being fussy. If they’re planted in the right conditions, they’re quite healthy. But given the wrong conditions, they’re quite prone to problems. Here are a few:

Birch Leafminer

shutterstock 2171091601

Although birch leafminer attacks don’t kill a birch tree, they can really affect the aesthetics. If the infestation is severe, the health of the tree is compromised.

Known as Fenusa pusilla, birch leafminers are fond of paper birch, gray birch, and European white birch.

The adults look like little black wasps. The larvae overwinter in the soil before pupating around May. Once the female mates, she will lay hundreds of eggs on developing leaves, and on the bark in crevices.

The larvae mine into the leaf between the upper and lower layers. The leaf looks damaged, wilted, and blotchy. Eventually, the leaf dies, so a large infestation affects the birch tree’s ability to photosynthesize.

  • Keep the tree as healthy as possible. Mulch well, water regularly, and feed if necessary.
  • Use parasitic wasps. Some have been released already, but check in your area with local experts on whether you can purchase parasitic wasps for release.
  • Use a good quality pesticide, but make sure you avoid times when pollinators are out-and-about.

Birch Borer

The bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius) is a serious insect that has the potential to kill your birch tree. This little beetle loves to attack weakened trees that may be struggling. The females lay eggs in bark flaps and other damaged parts of the tree.

You will notice stunted growth and thin patches in the upper crown of the tree. Next, the twigs die off, followed by branch die-off. Another sign of birch borer is the trunk may have a dirty brown stain on it.

The time between the first symptom and death of the tree can be over several years, but if the weather is hot and dry, the death of the tree is accelerated.

Girdling of the limb causes dieback.

The best defense against birch borer is to make sure the tree is healthy, is planted in the right location, and is watered well. You should also keep ugs away because they leave behind damage in the tree that the borders might take advantage of.

There are chemical treatments that can help. Look to Bayer Tree and Shrub Protect I or II, or Xytect. Apply from early April to mid-May.

Bacterial Canker Disease

Bacterial cankers (Pseudomonas syringae) enter the growing birch trees through wounds or from pruning damage, and when the weather is cool and wet. The cankers will form in spring and look like gummy lesions on twigs and branches.

If the canker gets too big and covers the circumference of the twig or branch, that part of the tree is likely to die through a lack of nutrients.

  • Avoid bacterial canker through good hygiene practices when pruning.
  • Prune in July and August because this is when pruning wounds heal quicker.
  • Remove infected branches and twigs and burn if you are able.
  • Use pruning paint to seal wounds.

How to Use Birch Trees

birch forest

Birch trees offer shade and a lovely focal point in the yard, but the leaves, wood and bark has many other uses. It’s worth growing birch trees just as ornamentals, but why not take advantage of their other uses?

Use the catkins and leaves to make a peppery tea. You can also tap the trees for sap.

Weave baskets or make wattle fencing using the branches.

Birch are also hosts to chaga mushrooms.

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