All birch trees share common features, such as male and female flowers on the same tree. Birches have foliage that drops each fall and their leaves grow in an alternate pattern on the branches. Most birches are fast-growing, handsome trees, making them useful as ornamentals. Three birches have varying traits that give them more landscaping potential for your yard--the yellow birch, river birch and gray birch.
Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) grows in southeastern Canada, New England, the Great Lake states, and the mountainous regions of the mid-Atlantic. Yellow birch can grow as tall as 100 feet, but averages between 60 and 75 feet high. The leaves are from 3 to 5 inches long and about half that wide and turn yellow in the fall, according to the University of Connecticut's Plant Database website. The tree’s most ornamental asset is its bark, which has a silvery sheen that gives this birch its other name--silver birch. The bark peels in narrow strips and rolls up in bunches on the trunk and branches. The yellow birch grows best in full sun and damp ground. The yellow birch will not fare well in warm-to-hot climates, being a northern species.
The trunks of the river birch (Betula nigra) often divide close to the base to create a multistemmed specimen. River birch can grow to 70 feet and is another birch with unusual bark. The immature trees have a flaky red-brown bark that readily peels, while the older river birch develop a gray bark with fissures throughout. The diamond-shaped leaves are about 3 inches long and a shiny green color that goes to gold in the fall. The tree is not drought tolerant, so keep it well watered. Plant a river birch in full sun to part shade. Interesting cultivars of this tree include 'Cully,' which is disease resistant and has peeling bark, and the dwarf version, 'Little King.'
When poor quality soil plagues your property, but you still desire a birch tree for a specific area, consider the gray birch (Betula populifolia). Its greatest advantage over other birches is its ability to grow--and grow quickly--in poor soil, including dry, rocky ground. A native of the Northeast, gray birch frequently forms many stems from its trunk, but lacks the paper-like bark of some other birches. Instead, the bark is smooth and light gray, becoming darker low on the tree as the tree ages. Gray birch is a small tree, usually under 30 feet tall. Heavy snows and ice may cause the tree to bend to the ground, but the tree’s flexibility generally keeps it from snapping in two, states the “National Audubon Field Guide to Trees.” The triangular leaves have long, pointed tips, are dark green and turn light yellow in fall.