Birch trees are known for their moderate to fast growth rate and white bark--although not all birch trees have a white bark. According to Jerry Goodspeed, Utah State University Extension horticulturist, all birch trees can grow in moist soil because they are native to very moist, cool environments. For best results, birch trees should be planted in a deep, well-draining, acidic, moist soil.
The paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is a beautiful white-barked tree known for its golden fall color. It grows about 50 to 70 feet tall with a 35-foot spread. It should be planted in full sun in either sandy or silty loam soils. It is pH adaptable and cold hardy. The paper birch has some drought tolerance, but drought stress and heat can weaken the trees and make them prone to problems with disease and pests. It is not pollution tolerant. It is hardy in USDA Zones 2 through 7a.
Although the river birch (Betula nigra) does not have white bark, its cinnamon color is still quite stunning. It grows about 40 to 70 feet high with a similar spread. It is adapted to heat when compared to other birches and will tolerate dry summers, with some drought resistance. It is known to develop chlorosis when planted in soils that have a pH above 6.5. The river birch is hardy in USDA Zones 4 through 9.
The yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) gets its name from its leaves, which turn a bright yellow to gold color in the fall. It is one of the largest hardwood trees in northeastern North America and will grow to about 60 to 75 feet tall with a similar spread. It is best planted in full sun but will tolerate partial shade. It is intolerant to heat and drought. The bark is not white, but rather a shiny yellow to grayish-silver that turns a reddish brown as it ages. The tree's stems have a wintergreen aroma that is released when they are crushed.
The sweet birch (Betula lenta) is also known as the black birch and the cherry birch. It is similar to yellow birch in bark color when it is older but has a reddish-brown color when it is young. Both trees have branches that contain a wintergreen odor when crushed, but the sweet birch tastes sweet---hence its name---while the yellow birch tastes bitter. The sweet birch grows about 40 to 55 feet tall with a slightly smaller width. It grows best in deep, rich soils but can be found in rocky, drier soils and heavy soils. However, it will not tolerate soils with a high pH. It grows best in full sun but will tolerate light shade. It is resistant to the bronze birch borer. It is hardy in USDA Zones 3 through 8.
European White Birch
The European white birch (Betula pendula) grows about 40 to 50 feet tall---100 feet tall in native areas---but only has a 10- to 20-foot spread. It is hardy in USDA Zones 2 through 7 and will be short-lived if planted in Zones 8 or 9. It develops its white color early and has a good fall color, but not as good as other birches. It is prone to borers, especially the bronze birch borer. It should be planted in full sun.