A relative of the beech/oak tree family, the birch genus (Betula) contains a number of trees and shrubs, many of which are native to North America. Many gardeners in temperate climates across the globe cultivate and value a variety of birch tree species, as they can fulfill many functions in the home garden. The birch tree also has a long history in the United States as a valuable building material for Native Americans.
Many species of birch trees produce subtle but beautiful colors throughout the fall season. A native of Europe, Russia and Western Siberia, the European white birch (Betula pendula) produces triangular, sawtooth leaves which change from pale green to yellow in the autumn. The river birch (Betula nigra) and the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) also produce cheery yellow autumn leaves, while the crimson frost birch (Betula platyphylla) boasts deep red leaves. When contrasted with the pale bark of the birch tree, the foliage colors really pop during the season.
Finding ornamental trees for cool weather can be difficult, but fortunately there are birch trees that can be grown in most of the United States. Gray birch (Betula populifolia) is a native of the northeastern United States, and can be grown throughout the region. One of the more popular species, the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is hardy all the way to USDA zone 3, and the European white birch is a cool-weather lover that will grow in a range of USDA zones 2 to 7.
Wet soils can cause problems for many gardeners, as the majority of plants dislike having "wet feet" from waterlogged soils. Unlike many trees, whose roots will rot in wet soil, the river birch (Betula nigra) thrives in waterlogged soils. A native of the Southern and Eastern United States, the river birch is a valuable tree for pond sides and river edges. The plant will flourish in wet, acidic soils in USDA zones 4 to 9.
Many gardeners find birch trees to be valuable because they are a manageable size. Though they may grow to be quite tall (up to 70 feet in some cases), they are more likely to be closer to 50 feet. Birch trees often have narrow, delicate trunks and crowns of leaves that are cascading or pyramid shaped rather than broad and spreading. They grow quickly, without growing out of control, and are not likely to damage home or property.
Birch trees have been traditionally used for buildings and related purposes. The Native Americans of the Eastern woodlands used white birch (Betula papyrifera), a native of North America, to build shelters, tools and torches. Also called "canoe birch," white birch was used as an outer skin for sophisticated cedar canoes, which were built to travel rivers and open oceans. Modern fiberglass canoes are still modeled after Native American birch canoes.