The paper birch, also known by its scientific name, Betula papyrifera, is a deciduous tree, native to the northern United States and southern Canada. It is known for its distinctive bark, which peels to form large, white, papery sheets. Because paper birch are so abundant, they are important winter forage for many forms of wildlife, including deer, moose and rabbits. The bark was used by native Americans to build canoes, as kindling and as a form of paper. Paper birch is also the state tree of New Hampshire.
Paper birch have leaves that are oval, with a slight point and serrated edges. The leaves are from 2 to 4 inches long and medium green in color. During fall, the leaves turn bright yellow and are quite showy. In spring, the flowers are green or brown and inconspicuous, forming fruit, called catkins, that are brown, slender and around three inches long. The appearance of the bark is dramatic. It is starkly white and peels naturally as the tree grows.
Paper birch is a relatively fast-growing tree, frequently putting on more than two feet of growth in a year. The tree grows well in hardiness zones 2 through 7. Paper birch hold their leaves longer than most deciduous trees and are very cold tolerant. In the wild, they tend to sprout multiple trunks and grow in large stands.
Paper birch are tall and slender with an upright form. They usually form a single main leader trunk, with horizontal branches that tend to droop. The tree can reach up to 70 feet tall and can spread to 30 feet across. The basic form of the mature paper birch is loosely oval with a moderately dense canopy and fine texture.
Full sun is best for paper birch; however, the plant can tolerate partial shade. Soils should be slightly alkaline and well-draining, though the tree is partial to wetter environments. It is also fairly drought and salt tolerant. Young trees are readily available in nurseries and garden centers and can be easily transplanted. New plantings should be irrigated regularly until the plant is well-established. The tree can be grown as a single trunk or as a clump with multiple trunks.
Paper birch are often grown for their attractive white bark and bright yellow fall foliage. They are often used as a specimen tree in landscape design. The wood of the paper birch tree is hard, creamy white and close-grained. It resists splintering, finishes well and has a variety of uses.