12 Common Species of Birch Trees

illustration of varieties of birch trees

 Hugo Lin /The Spruce, 2019 

Birch trees belong to the genus Betula and are classified as part of the Betulaceae family of plants. They are typically small to medium-sized trees and shrubs found in temperate zones in the Northern Hemisphere. Some varieties grow in shrubby clusters, others are trees that clump with multiple trunks, while others grow as classic single-trunk trees. Most birches are characterized by distinctive bark with papery plates; the appearance of the bark often is the feature that gives the species its common names. The beautiful bark and leaves make birches a common choice in landscaping, but they are relatively short-lived trees when compared to other hardwoods, and many are susceptible to damage from insects and diseases.

Most birches are water lovers, which can be great if you have soil that tends to be moist. However, the roots might head for your plumbing pipes if a large tree is planted too close to your house. Do not let this deter you, though; these are magnificent trees and should definitely be considered for inclusion in your landscape. Birches are fast-growing trees that can quickly provide benefit to your yard.

Tip

Insect pests are most likely to strike a birch tree in areas where it is wounded or diseased. By keeping your trees well pruned and free of damaged branches, you can greatly reduce the likelihood of infestation by bronze birch borer or other insects.

  • 01 of 12

    Bog Birch (Betula pumila)

    Bog Birch in Autumn
    Western Arctic National Parklands/Flickr/CC 2.0

    Bog birch is a medium-sized, short-lived, clump-forming shrub for wet habitats. It thrives in wet sites The plant can tolerate occasional flooding, alkaline soil, clay soil, and road salt, but it does not tolerate air pollution very well. When planted in residential landscapes, it may be used around bodies of water or boggy areas, or in rain gardens.

    Other common names for bog birch include swamp birch, glandular birch, dwarf birch, and resin birch.

    • Native Area: North America
    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 9 
    • Height: 5 to 10 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • 02 of 12

    Cherry Birch (Betula lenta)

    Sweet birch tree
    Stephen Robson / Getty Images

    Cherry birch is a large-sized birch tree that grows from a single main trunk. It is an attractive tree for lawns and naturalized areas with shiny, red-brown bark and yellow foliage. On mature trees, the bark develops vertical cracks that form irregular scaly plates, closely resembling the bark of cherry trees. This tree attracts beautiful butterflies to the landscape, but it is resistant to the bronze birch borer that can devastate other species of birch.

    Regionally, the cherry birch may be called by other common names, including black birch, sweet birch, mahogany birch, Virginia roundleaf birch, or spice birch.

    • Native Area: Eastern U.S., from Maine to northern Georgia
    • USDA Growing Zones: Zones 3 to 8 
    • Height: 40 to 70 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 03 of 12

    Downy Birch (Betula pubescens)

    Downy birch
    Katsuhiro Yamanashi / Getty Images

    The downy birch is a narrow tree with a slender trunk covered with smooth gray-white bark. It is very similar to the silver birch, but on the downy birch, the bark is slightly grayer in color. Due to is susceptibility to bronze birch borer, the downy birch tree is no longer recommended for planting and eventually requires removal and/or replacement.

    Other common names for the downy birch include hairy birch, moor birch, white birch, and American white birch.

    • Native Area: Northern Europe, northern Asia
    • USDA Growing Zones: Zones 2 to 9. May grow in zone 1 
    • Height: About 40 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade 
  • 04 of 12

    Dwarf Birch (Betula nana)

    Dwarf Birch
    MAKY_OREL / Pixabay / CC By 0

    Betula nana is native to arctic and cool temperate regions, especially tundra landscapes. It will grow in a variety of conditions, though it favors wet but well-drained sites with a rocky, nutrient-poor, acidic soil. It does not tolerate shade well. The dwarf birch is rarely planted in landscapes, but it is important cover vegetation in cold northern territories.

    Other names for this tree include bog birch and arctic birch.

    • Native Areas: Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe, northern Asia, and northern North America
    • USDA Growing Zones: Zones 1 to 8 
    • Height: 6 inches to 3 feet tall 
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12

    Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii)

    Himalayan Birch
    John Lord / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    The ornamental interest of Himalayan birch includes pretty spring flowers, rich yellow fall color, and its papery bark. It is a medium-sized tree with a single trunk that quickly branches out into a pyramid shape. Its bark is a very attractive white color. However, the Himalayan birch is very susceptible to the bronze birch borer and usually requires removal and/or replacement, especially in warmer zones. It is a longer-lived tree in cooler climates.

    This tree has other common names, including white-barked Himalayan birch and Jacquemonti birch.

    • Native Area: West Himalaya, Nepal
    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 7 
    • Height: 30 to 50 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun; can take some light shade 
  • 06 of 12

    Japanese White Birch (Betula platyphylla 'Japanica')

    Japanese White Birch
    View Photos/a.collectionRF / Getty Images

    This species, also known as Asian white birch, is a medium- to large-sized tree with white bark and thin spreading branches that terminate in drooping branchlets. This tree is best grown in medium to wet, well-drained, sandy or rocky loams. Although it prefers full sun, it is best sited in a northern or eastern exposure that receives some afternoon shade. It needs consistently moist soils. It performs best in cooler climates; warmer zones often see it attacked by birch borer insects.

    • Native Area: Manchuria, Korea, Japan
    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8 
    • Height: 40 to 50 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade 
  • 07 of 12

    Paper Bark Birch (Betula papyrifera)

    Paper Bark Birch
    Plant Image Library / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    Primarily native to Alaska, Canada, and the northern states of the U.S., this tree has lovely white bark and yellow fall color. It can grow either as a single-trunk tree or in small clumps with multiple trunks. Paper birch is so-named due to the thin white bark which often peels in paper-like layers from the trunk. It may also be known as the canoe birch or white birch. It is the classic birch tree used to make Native American birch-bark canoes. This tree demonstrates some resistance to the bronze birch borer. 

    • Native Area: Northern North America
    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 7 
    • Height: 45 to 70 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to light shade
  • 08 of 12

    River Birch (Betula nigra)

    River birch
    F. D. Richards / Flickr/ CC By 2.0

    River birch is a popular, fast-growing tree for the home landscape. It may grow either as a single-trunk tree or a multi-trunk clumping tree. It has a very distinctive bark, in which attractive salmon-pink to reddish-brown bark exfoliates to reveal lighter inner bark. Dark green foliage turns a beautiful buttery yellow in the fall. River birch has good resistant to the bronze birch borer. It is one of the only truly heat-tolerant birches.

    River birch may also be known as red birch, black birch, or water birch.

    • Native Area: Eastern U.S.
    • Preferred Hardiness Zones: Zones 4 to 9 
    • Height: 40 to 70 fee
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Silver Birch (Betula pendula or B. verrucosa)

    Silver birch

     

    Eerik / Getty Images

    This tree has an attractive pendulous habit and distinctive white bark that peels away in papery strips. It grows as single-trunk tree that gradually transforms from pyramidal in shape to a more rounded, oval crown. Also known as European birch or European white birch, the sliver birch was once used extensively in landscapes, but its high susceptibility to the bronze birch borer has limited its use in more recent years.

    • Native Area: Europe, Asia
    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 7; can be grown in 8 and 9, but will have a shorter life
    • Height: 40 to 80 feet, depending on cultivar
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun  
  • 10 of 12

    Weeping Birches (Betula pendula var.)

    Young's weeping birch

    Ron Evans / Getty Images

    Trees known as weeping birches generally are different naturally occurring or cultivated varieties of silver birch (Betula pendula), described above. Exact details such as growing zones and height will depend on the particular variety.

     Common varieties include:

    • Curly birch (B. pendula 'Carelica')
    • Cutleaf weeping European birch (B. pendula 'Gracilis')
    • Golden cloud weeping birch (B. pendula 'Golden Cloud')
    • Purple weeping birch (B. pendula 'Purpurea')
    • Swedish birch (B. pendula 'Dalecarlica' or 'Laciniata')
    • Tristis weeping birch (B. pendula 'Tristis')
    • Young's weeping birch (B. pendula 'Youngii') (pictured)
  • 11 of 12

    Water Birch (Betula occidentalis or Betula fontinalis)

    Betula occidentalis- water birch

    Thayne Tuason / Wikimedia Commons / CC By 4.0

    This tree typically occurs along streams in mountainous regions, where it grows in dense thickets. The bark is dark red-brown to blackish, and smooth. Unlike other birch trees, its bark does not peel. This is a common source of food and lodge material for the common North American beaver.

    Other common names for this tree include western birch, red birch, river birch, black birch, and western red birch.

    • Native Area: Western North America, mountainous regions
    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 7 
    • Height: Shrubby form can grow 25 feet tall; as a tree, to 40 feet 
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade  
  • 12 of 12

    Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

    Yellow birch
    Cora Niele / Getty Images

    Yellow birch, named for the color of its bark, is a relatively long-lived birch which typically grows 150 years and may even grow up to 300 years in old-growth forests. It is a single-stemmed tree with yellow-bronze bark that peels in narrow horizontal strips. This is a very important species to the North American lumber industry.

    Yellow birch may be known regionally as swamp birch, curly birch, gold birch, or hard birch.

    • Native Area: Northeastern North America
    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 7 
    • Height: 50 to 80 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade  

The various species of birch trees in the Betula genus include at least 12 that are important landscape trees. Birch trees offer interesting bark color and texture and attractive foliage, but they are relatively short-lived and they may suffer from a susceptibility to diseases and insects, especially the bronze birch borer. But birches still make excellent, fast-growing landscape specimens, provided you have realistic expectations.