The Beauty of Birches

Kathy Green-Adelsberger
Adams County Master Gardener

What would intrigue a 5 year old about a birch tree is anyoneís guess, but one of this gardenerís earliest childhood memories is of my Dad letting me help him plant a tiny white birch sapling in our front yard in Michigan. I remember him explaining how the hole had to be dug and the little tree positioned just right with the right kind of soil added, and of course the tree had to be watered daily. Well, from that day on I had a special love for these beauties. Maybe itís just because of the special childhood memory, or maybe birches have a mysterious ability to lure us to them with their white, creamy or salmon curly and peeling bark. Or, perhaps itís their light and airy habit as their leaves seem to flicker in the breeze, and their branches sway gracefully from a single trunk or clump of trunks.

Birches are deciduous trees in the family Betulacea.. The word "birch" originates from ancient Sanskrit language meaning "tree bark used for writing on". It is believed that the bark of these trees was once used for paper similar to papyrus.

There are many varieties of birches, but the more common ones you see native to this area are called river birch (Betula nigra). They love acidic, wet or even flooded areas, but can survive dry, alkaline soils, although, in these soils their leaves may turn yellow and drop. They seem to tolerate extreme heat, but need plenty of water to keep their leaves from burning and dropping. If you plant a birch, be ready for it to be a fast grower and reach up to approximately 40 feet wide and 70 feet tall by the time itís 30 years old. So, in other words, give birches plenty of room to grow.

The leaves of river birches are usually glossy and dark green on their upper side, lighter green on the underside. The leaves tend to be shaped like diamonds, hence they look as though they are flickering in a breeze. Birches produce male catkins up to 3 inches long and female flowers up to an inch long, but the flowers are not significant or showy. While birches tend to lose their leaves a little earlier in autumn, if they are not deprived of moisture, they will display beautiful golden, yellow and brown leaves with cinnamon-colored twigs and branches.

While all of the birches have their unique elegance, some are more adaptable and disease and pest resistant than others for this area. Since the river birch is a native of this area, that makes it more adaptable than some of its cousins like paper birch or European white birch. Heritage or "Cully" cultivar tends to be resistant to the Bronze Birch Borer and in general considered the most trouble free. Heritage is also known for being more resistant to leaf spot and its bark is a rich creamy color, as it peels away from an almost orange colored trunk. River birches tend to be susceptible to aphids and caterpillars under less than ideal conditions.

As mentioned earlier, birches come in single trunks and multi-trunks (called clumps). They tend to send up new shoots from the ground, so you may want to cut these off for a cleaner look and to reveal more of the interesting bark. I often trim the branches of my birches up to about 3 feet from the ground so I can enjoy that intriguing bark revealed beneath a wispy canopy.

Birches are beautiful whether they are planted in landscape gardens or alone as a specimen tree. While white birches are popular because of their beautiful stark white bark, the river birch has more subtle, rich, creamy colors and adds its own beauty to just about any landscape. They are easy to transplant and do well when transplanted in the spring or fall when rainfall is heavier. They need little or no maintenance once they become established, and under ideal conditions will even naturalize. The scaly bark so characteristic of birches, makes them ideal providers of year round interest for your garden. After the leaves fall in autumn, you will continue to enjoy the richly textured hues of cream, brown and cinnamon bark throughout winter.

My family moved from Michigan before my little birch got very big, but I continued to keep track of it with the people who bought our house. Eventually, that little birch grew so big, it hovered over the roof of that house, gracefully providing wonderful shade and becoming the envy of the neighborhood.

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