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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.
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, 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.
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, 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!
George and Becky Lohmiller shared their gardening knowledge and enthusiasm with Almanac readers for more than 15 years, writing Farmer’s Calendar essays and gardening articles in previous editions of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Read More from George and Becky Lohmiller