How to Grow and Care for a Paper Birch Tree

Paper birch tree with branches growing upwards and green leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

The paper birch tree (Betula papyrifera) is a fast-growing but short-lived tree that often develops multiple trunks as the plant matures. The most distinctive characteristic of this deciduous tree is the peeling bark, which contrasts sharply against the green leaves that turn bright yellow in fall. The peeling white bark blends well with winter's snowy surroundings. Historically, this was the birch tree used by Native Americans to construct birch-bark canoes—hence the alternative common name, "canoe birch."

The leaves of this tree grow 2 to 4 inches long with double-toothed margins. The small dry fruit (nutlets) form in clusters on drooping catkins that turn brown upon maturity. The paper birch, being a monoecious tree, bears both male and female catkins. Similar to most other birch trees, the paper birch likes a moist environment, making it the perfect accompaniment to a stream or pond feature in your yard.

Botanical Name Betula papyrifera 
Common Names Paper birch, American white birch, canoe birch
Family Betulaceae
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 50-70 ft. tall, 25-50 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Partial
Soil Type Sandy, loamy, moist
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow, brown (male), or green (female)
Hardiness Zones 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Native Area North America

Paper Birch Tree Care

Birches, in general, are well known as water-loving trees and are not very drought resistant. It is best planted in an area that is naturally moist and will require a lot of watering if planted in dry soils or in areas where it must compete with other plants. Do not plant paper birch in compacted soil or in climates that have intense periods of heat.

Paper birch grows best if you can cover the ground beneath its canopy with a thick layer of mulch to keep the soil moist and cool. Rather than planting lawn grass right up to the trunk, a mulch island around the tree is a good idea.

You will need to be on guard for pest problems with this tree, as some can be quite devastating. And be prepared to remove older trees, as this species is not long-lived.

Paper bitch tree with white bark and bright green leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Paper birch tree trunk with peeling white bark closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Paper birch tree branches with bright green leaves and buds closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

Paper birch prefers the partial shade conditions found along margins where other taller trees are growing, but it can grow acceptably if planted in full sun, especially in cooler climates.

Soil

Paper birch grows best in sandy or rocky loam soil that is fairly moist. It naturally favors acidic soil but will do fine in soil with a neutral pH, or even slightly alkaline.

Water

Preferring moist soil, this tree will need to be watered frequently if planted in a lawn location where it must compete with turfgrass. It will require less watering if planted alongside a stream, pond, or bog where conditions are naturally moist.

Temperature and Humidity

This tree grows best in cooler climates and cool soil temperatures. Keeping the soil cool and moist by heavy mulching is a good strategy for trees that can't be planted in a naturally moist location. Near the southern end of the hardiness range (zones 6 and 7), this tree sometimes struggles; it prefers a climate with long winters and coolish summers.

Fertilizing

A spring feeding routine with a slow-release granular fertilizer mixed into the soil beneath a layer of organic mulch will help the paper birch resist bronze birch borers. Avoid excessive feeding.

Types of Paper Birch Tree

The pure species, Betula papyrifera, is most commonly planted, but there are two cultivars that can be considered:

  • 'Chickadee' has a narrower, pyramidal shape and is somewhat more resistant to the bronze birch borer than the pure species tree.
  • 'Snowy' is an especially fast-growing variety with a dazzling white bark. It also has good resistance to the bronze birch borer.

Pruning

Paper birch may form one or several trunks. Once a central leader has been identified, you can prune the tree to favor a singular trunk. Other than the occasional shaping, paper birch does not need much pruning. The tree tends to shed smaller branches on its own. Their attachment to the main trunk is so weak, you often don't have to prune off dead limbs—they just fall off when they are ready.

Do not prune in late winter or early spring or your tree will bleed sap in an attempt to heal the wound. While sap bleeding is not necessarily detrimental to the tree's health, it can cause an unsightly mess, and excessive open wounds can make the tree susceptible to pests.

Propagating a Paper Birch Tree

Although the success rate is usually only about 50 percent, birch trees can sometimes be propagated by rooting branch cuttings. Cut a 6- to 8-inch-long green branch tip, making the cut just below a leaf node. Remove all the leaves from the bottom 3 inches of the cutting. Dip the cutting in rooting hormone, then plant it in a small pot filled with standard potting soil.

Cover the planting pot loosely with a clear plastic bag and place it in a bright location but out of direct sunlight. Keep the soil moist but not soggy for about eight weeks, until roots develop.

Transplant the rooted cutting into the desired landscape location, into a hole where the soil has been amended with peat moss and sand. Be careful not to break the young roots as you transplant the cutting into the ground.

Keep the soil moist but not soggy for the next eight weeks. At this point, if the planted cutting is developing new growth, you know that a successful tree is beginning to grow. The growing sapling can now be fed with diluted fertilizer.

How to Grow Paper Birch Trees From Seed

Collect paper birch seeds in the fall, when the catkins start to brown. The seeds are small, with wings that help them fly on the breeze. Place the seeds in a small container filled with compost or humus. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of potting soil and sprinkle them with water.

Place the container in an area where the seeds can stratify, such as in a refrigerator or an unheated garage during winter. They need to be in the cold for six months.

After the six months is over, set the container on a sunny windowsill for light and warmth. The soil should be kept moist. The seeds should sprout within a few weeks. Thin out the seedlings until you have one strong contender. This can be planted in the ground in the spring after all danger of frost has passed.

Overwintering

A good layer of mulch underneath the tree will help it through the winter. Also, keep an eye on the water the tree is getting. Snowfall can often give a tree what it needs during the winter, but if you are facing a period of little to no snow, additional watering can help keep the ground moist.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

All birches can fall victim to the bronze birch borer, a devastating insect pest. An affected tree will show yellowing leaves that begin to shed, and the tips of the branches will turn brown. These symptoms generally start at the top of the tree and move downward. Paper birch is one of the more resistant of the birch species, but if bronze birch borer does strike your tree, prune off affected limbs as you see them, and use a pesticide designed to control the insects. Badly affected trees will need to be removed and replaced.

Aphids, birch skeletonizers, and birch leaf miners can also wreak havoc on trees that have become weakened due to drought. Make sure your trees are not competing with your lawn for moisture. Another potential drought problem is birch dieback, where the branches of the birch tree die out over time. Conversely, trees that are watered too much can become prone to fungal problems, including leaf spots and cankers.

FAQ
  • How long can a paper birch tree live?

    These trees have a typical lifespan of 30 years, but some might make it to 50 years in ideal conditions.

  • How fast does the paper birch tree grow?

    Expect this fast-growing tree to add 12 to 24 inches over the course of a single season.

  • What are some alternatives to paper birch?

    River birch has bark that peels dramatically in layers to reveal reddish-brown underlayers over bright white inner bark. It is a good choice in regions where bronze birch bore is a severe problem. Other options include silver (weeping) birch, which has great heat resistance; gray birch, which tolerates drier soils; and Himalayan birch, which provides excellent shade.