Plant Profile: White Birch

Few wintertime trees are more spectacular than our native White Birch. Standing straight and tall against a clear blue sky, or blending into a snowy landscape, birch trees are a New England fixture. Betula papyrifera, or the Paper Birch, is the most well-recognized of all birch trees. There are several similar looking species, but none are as spectacular or hardy as the paper birch. A soft layer of snow outlining already white bark, its clean lines interrupted by black stripes, is the quintessential winter motif.

Medium-green leaves that turn golden in autumn are a beautiful feature of this plant, as well as its stunning black and white exfoliating bark. Birches need plenty of sun and nutrients while they are getting established in the landscape, and have been known to live up to 140 years if planted in the right spot. They adapt to a wide variety of soils, but prefer to be in a moist but well-drained area. All birch will grow readily when planted out of a container or ball-and-burlap culture, but care must be taken if one is dug and transplanted in the landscape. Early spring is the best time to transplant, but wait until fall to prune, if it must be done. Sap flows readily during the growing season and can overly stress the tree if too much is lost, and open cuts invite entry of the bronze birch borer, a voracious pest of most white-barked birch.

Ancient meanings and legends of the Birch tree include renewal and purification. These come from the observations that birch and other softwood deciduous trees are often the first to grow again after a major disaster such as fire or flood. As birch prefers bright, open areas, a forest damaged by fire is an ideal place for new seedlings to sprout. Thousands upon thousands of little double-winged seeds are borne from the female catkins every year, spreading on the slightest breeze and waiting for the right time to sprout. These seeds are also an important food source for birds and small mammals during the long winter months.

Other species of birch that are similar to the paper birch include B. pendula, the European Birch, and B. nigra, the River Birch. The European Birch is another white-barked birch, but does not display quite the same degree of peeling that the paper birch does. River birch bark peels quite readily, and has a creamy or reddish-colored underbark, rather than white. It is also much more tolerant of wetter soils, and resistant to the bronze birch borer. There is also a hybrid birch, with purple foliage, called ‘Royal Frost’ that makes quite a statement in the landscape. Besides being a beautiful contrast with the tree’s bright white bark, the fall color is a brilliant red, a unique departure from the yellows of most other birch.

Clumps of three small trees are popular, and make a nice focal point in a yard or garden. They can be under-planted with perennials or small shrubs, as they do not tend to compete for the same rootspace. A collection of bedding annuals planted around the base will also benefit the tree from the additional water and fertilizer required to keep them looking spectacular through the season.