Sacred to tree lovers everywhere, the genus betula encompasses several varieties of birch trees and shrubs, including the paper birch and the river birch. All birches feature slender trunks and yellow autumnal foliage. Their delicacy is no illusion; vulnerable branches and even trunks seem to litter yards and forest floors after winter storms. The betula's ethereal charm has been celebrated in literature by everyone from the fictional Anne of Green Gables to celebrated poet Robert Frost.
Unlike the mighty oak or venerable walnut, birch trees rarely live to thrill generations. Many die after 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forestry Service. White-barked trees succumb to the elements more often than black or red varieties. The shallow-rooted trees need moist soil conditions and afternoon shade. The leaves turn yellow in the fall, and most grow 40 to 50 feet. Depending on the variety, birches often grow in "clumps" rather than as single-trunked specimens.
North American Varieties
The paper, or canoe birch (Betula papyrifera), grows taller than other birches, sometimes up to 90 feet. Its bark is white with black stripes or blotches, which peels with maturity. River birch (B. nigra) features reddish, peeling bark and a pronounced preference for moist soil, as its name suggests. The dark bark of the sweet birch (B. lenta) inspired its other common names, cherry birch and black birch. Gray birch (B. populifolia) sports gray bark which doesn't peel. The bark of the yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis), on the other hand, starts as an orange-yellow, which peels and darkens with age.
Of the European birches, silver birch (B. pendula) has spawned the most cultivars and hybrids, according to garden writer Barbara Damrosch. These offspring include the European white weeping silver birch (B. pendula 'Youngii'). The non-peeling bark of the former starts white and turns black with maturity. The latter develops a pronounced "weeping" silhouette and features white, peeling bark.
Buy balled-and-burlaped birch trees, rather than those sold as bare-root seedlings, because the trees dislike being transplanted. Plant them where they'll receive afternoon shade and slightly acid soil, and keep the ground moist, but not boggy. Either allow birches to grow as they would in the wild or prune while young to a single trunk and remove lower or crisscrossing branches. North American homeowners will likely find the native verities more resistant than the European birches to pests like the birch borer and birch leaf miner, Damrosch notes.
Birch trees, though slender, yield enough lumber to make elegant, light-colored furniture pieces. The fallen branches and felled trunks make useful firewood, while twigs traditionally add fragrant steam to saunas. Manufacturers also use them for small, light items like popsicle sticks and plywood. The trees' sap makes delicious birch beer, syrup and candy. Herbalists utilize the bark topically and internally for aching muscles and headaches. Canoe birch received its name from the Native American preference for that tree's bark in constructing watercraft---a practice modern canoe makers still follow. Crafters use birch bark in basket making. The fragrance industry utilizes the sweet birch for a fragrant essential oil useful in perfumes and potpourri. A culinary essential oil made from sweet birch flavors sodas and candy.