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Birch Trees: Barking Up the Right Birch

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With its distinctive peeling chalky-white bark, the white birch tree (Betula papyrifera) is a showpiece. However, there are birches of color, too.

White Birch

  • This white, or paper, birch is one of the most widely planted and easily recognizable trees in the landscape.
  • Native Americans and early settlers depended on its layered bark. Peeled thin, it was used for writing paper. Its waterproof qualities made it ideal for birch-bark canoes, from which it gets another of its common names, canoe birch.
  • Its airy pyramidal shape, bright-yellow fall foliage, and eye-catching bark make it a favorite.
  • The white birch has some downfalls: it's relatively weak and subject to breakage and decay, and a magnet for pests.

Yellow Birch

  • Yellow, or silver, birch (Betula alleghaniensis) dresses in a bronzy bark that peels off in thin layers and forms ragged ends that become coppery brown.
  • The colorful, tattered bark and shiny brown stems are especially attractive against a fresh snow.

Black Birch

  • A close relative to yellow birch, black—also called sweet and cherry—birch (Betula lenta) is known for its golden autumn foliage.
  • Its rosy stems have a spicy wintergreen taste and aroma.
  • The bark on these young trees is reddish brown to black; in older specimens, it darkens and forms deep fissures and scaly plates.
  • Black birch is used in naturalistic plantings and produces seeds that are eaten by numerous birds.

Red Birch

  • Red, or river, birch (Betula nigra) is suitable for just about any landscape.
  • It is the most trouble-free and is all but immune to the bronze birch borer.
  • As its name implies, it tolerates wet conditions and seasonal flooding but is happy growing in drier soils.
  • Its main attraction is its unique exfoliating reddish-brown bark that shreds and peels as the tree matures, exposing layers of gray, cinnamon, and salmon. It’s a showstopper when planted en masse.

Birches of color are beautiful trees. It’s too bad that they didn’t catch on in earlier days; they’d have made for some colorful canoes!

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