11 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 11

    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 that thrives in wet sites. The plant tolerates occasional flooding, alkaline soil, clay soil, and road salt, but it does not tolerate air pollution very well. When planted in residential landscapes, it grows well around bodies of water or in boggy areas. Bog birch is a good choice for rain gardens.

    Other common names 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 11

    Cherry Birch (Betula lenta)

    Sweet birch tree
    Stephen Robson / Getty Images

    Cherry birch is a large tree that grows from a single main trunk. Shiny, red-brown bark and yellow foliage make this an attractive tree for lawns and naturalized areas. The bark, on mature trees, develops vertical cracks that form irregular scaly plates, closely resembling the bark of cherry trees. Flowering in April and May, the tree produces fruiting catkins from August through October and serves as a food source for deer, moose, rabbits and various birds. This tree also attracts beautiful butterflies to the landscape, but is resistant to the bronze birch borer which can devastate other species of birch. Broken twigs emit a spicy wintergreen fragrance and fermented sap is an ingredient in birch beer.

    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 11

    Dwarf Birch (Betula nana)

    Dwarf Birch
    MAKY_OREL / Pixabay / CC By 0

    Betula nana is a small dwarf shrub, 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
  • 04 of 11

    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 bright white papery bark. It is a medium-sized tree with a single trunk that quickly branches out into a pyramid shape. This birch species is very susceptible to the bronze birch borer and usually requires removal and/or replacement, especially in warmer zones. It is a heartier and 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 
    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    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 tree with white bark and thin spreading branches that terminate in drooping branchlets. This tree grows best in medium to wet, well-drained, sandy or rocky loam. Although it prefers full sun, the Japanese White Birch thrives in northern and eastern exposures that receivs some afternoon shade. A main requirement is consistently moist soil. Like several other members of the birch familly, this birch performs best in cooler climate; with warmer zones causing increased susceptibility to 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 
  • 06 of 11

    Paper Bark Birch (Betula papyrifera)

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

    Primarily native to Alaska, Canada, and northern U.S. states, 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 also is known as the canoe birch or white birch. This is the classic birch tree use by Native Americans to make many useful products from footware to their famous birch-bark canoes. Buds, catkins and leaves along with twigs and bark are a source of food for birds and other wildlife. The Paper Bark birch demonstrates some resistance to the bronze birch borer. 

    • Native Area: Northern North America
    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 7 
    • Height: 45 to 100 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to light shade
  • 07 of 11

    River Birch (Betula nigra)

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

    River birch is an increasingly 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 distinctive salmon-pink to reddish-brown bark that exfoliates to reveal lighter inner bark providing year round interest in the landscape. 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 feet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • 08 of 11

    Silver Birch (Betula pendula or B. verrucosa)

    Silver birch

     

    Eerik / Getty Images

    The Silver birch 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 Weeping 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  
    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    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)
  • 10 of 11

    Water Birch (Betula occidentalis or Betula fontinalis)

    Betula occidentalis- water birch

    Thayne Tuason / Wikimedia Commons / CC By 4.0

    Water birch 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 tree is a 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  
  • 11 of 11

    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 an important species to the North American lumber industry and a major woodland food source for birds and wildlife.

    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.