Birches are a group of trees prized as ornamentals. Birches possess a pleasing form, distinctive and showy bark, and their foliage that often changes to brilliant colors in fall. Birches, with the exception of very few species, grow in cooler northern climates and may not be a suitable landscaping plant in states where hot weather rules. Birches make sense for smaller yards, as many types do not become too large to manage.
Water birch (Betula occidentalis) grows in the wild from southern parts of Alaska southward through Canada into the Dakotas. The range extends as far south as California and New Mexico. Water birch makes a good choice as an ornamental in these areas as mule deer, one of the predominant grazers in these regions, seem to refrain from eating the leaves. Water birch grows as tall as 33 feet but most are in the 20 to 25 foot range and have a shrubby appearance. The bark is a major attraction, as it turns a coppery color when the tree ages. The water birch has drooping branches, one to 2 inch long leaves and can grow in very wet ground. It is a typical tree along streams within its range and can handle locations that often have enough water to prevent other trees from growing.
Gray birch (Betula populifolia) is what the "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees" terms a "nurse species" of tree, meaning that it provides shade for the seedlings of other forest trees. The gray birch is a quick grower, but the trade-off is that the species is not long lived with a lifespan in the range of about 50 years. Gray birch is not a tall birch, growing to about 30 feet high. The range of this species is northward from eastern North Carolina to northern Maine, with the tree occurring in upland locations, abandoned farmlands and mixed forests. Gray birch requires full sun and grows in wet or dry scenarios in many soil types. The bark, which is chalk-white on older trees, lacks the exfoliating properties of many birches.
Black birch (Betula lenta), also called cherry birch or sweet birch, is a northeastern species, growing from Maine through the Appalachians. Black birch is the most aromatic of the birches with a wintergreen smell to its twigs. Oil of wintergreen came from the black birch, a substance used to flavor candy and medicines. Black birch has a reputation as having the brightest autumn color, turning golden yellow in the fall. The tree flourishes in acidic well-draining spots that are somewhat damp. Cool summers are a prerequisite for the black birch to do well. Black birch bark is a shiny dark shade of brown and on older trees, the trunk breaks into scaly plates. Black birch is able to make it to 60 feet high in the larger specimens and can have a trunk 2 feet in diameter.