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Birch Tree Varieties

By John Lindell ; Updated September 21, 2017
Birch bark is one of the assets of this type of tree.
Close-up of a river birch tree image by ryasick from Fotolia.com

The arrays of birches that occur in North America have a number of pleasing features that make them prized for ornamental use. The foliage is often among the first to leaf out in spring. The manageable heights of most varieties of birches mean you can plant them in a variety of places on your land. The bark of birches is another asset for most species, as it is often showy, with an assortment of colors and textures.

Gray Birch

The gray birch (Betula populifolia) is a species best adapted for cool and cold climates, making it unsuitable for locations where the summers are humid and hot. The gray birch, also called poverty birch and poplar birch, grows to be from 20 to 40 feet tall and does not become widened at its top. The gray birch has triangular, dark green foliage, about 2 to 3.5 inches long, that will become yellow in autumn. The bark is not papery like that of many types of birches, but instead starts out as a smooth red-brown layer on immature individuals and develops into a chalky gray-white color with patches shaped like triangles below where branches attach to the trunk. Gray birch grows quickly but is short-lived, with insect pests such as the birch leaf miner able to defoliate the tree when they exist in large numbers. The trunks of gray birches are so supple that heavy snowfalls can bend them over; ice storms and blizzards can break trunks in two.

River Birch

The river birch (Betula nigra) is a species that can handle medium-wet to damp soils and it grows in partial shade or full sunshine conditions. Of all the birches native to North America, river birch is the most heat tolerant, says the Missouri Botanical Gardens website. The tree is native to areas as far south as northern Florida. River birch grows between 40 and 80 feet tall and can be 2 feet wide at its base. The tree has peeling flaky bark in a wonderful range of colors, with cream, salmon, orange and even lavender shades mixed into it. This makes the river birch as attractive a tree as there is in the winter when the leaves are long off its branches. River birch withstands attacks by a harmful bug called the bronze birch borer. One of the most popular of all cultivars of this tree, Heritage, features a multicolored exfoliating bark on the trunk and branches.

Water Birch

Water birch (Betula occidentalis) is the only type of birch native to the Southwest, notes the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees. Water birch exists throughout much of the western states at high elevations, where it forms thickets along rivers and stream, providing adequate cover for the fish in the water, animals and birds. Water birch is often shrubby and rarely gets taller than 20 to 25 feet. The birch has a copper-colored smooth bark that resists peeling. Water birch is a valuable tree to control erosion, and its capability to exist where conditions are damp allows you to plant it around brooks, ponds and streams. Water birch puts out an elaborate root system that the National Forest Service website mentions has a stabilizing effect near waterways. In the fall, the 1- to 2-inch-long leaves will turn a pale yellow color.


About the Author


John Lindell has written articles for "The Greyhound Review" and various other online publications. A Connecticut native, his work specializes in sports, fishing and nature. Lindell worked in greyhound racing for 25 years.