Yellow Birch Plant Profile

Golden leaved birch trees in a meadow near a woodland

Francisco Garin Garcia / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Yellow Birch is a stately large tree with dramatic coloring. The tree forms small yellow blossoms in spring which become attractive catkins. Its leaves turn a brilliant golden yellow in fall, and its shiny bark peels and offers gorgeous texture. The bark's color looks like a deep yellowish brown, giving the tree its common name; on mature trees, this color shifts gradually from a silvery grey to a deep reddish brown over time.

The yellow birch is very long-lived, living on average a hundred and fifty years; some old growth forest specimens of yellow birch are over three hundred years old. Yellow birch trees can grow to between sixty and seventy-five feet in height, with a wide spreading canopy up thirty to fifty feet wide. Yes, it can be almost as wide as it is tall! It's the largest North American birch tree. The tree from afar has an almost circular looking shape due to its comparatively wide canopy. It's one of the largest hardwood tree species in North America.

In addition to its pleasing appearance, the young stems of this tree have an unusual wintergreen aroma, similar to the smell of a sweet birch though not as potent. Both trees have essential oils found in the bark that may be used to produce the old-fashioned beverage enjoyed by American setters: birch beer. If you've never had birch beer (not actually a "beer" but a sweet soft drink), this tree just may make you want to try it. Also, the sap of the yellow birch can be boiled down like maple syrup; it has a lower sugar content than maple, but the sap is abundant and birch syrup has many culinary uses. The stems and twigs are also enjoyed by wildlife, specifically cottontail rabbits, moose and whitetail deer. Various birds enjoy eating the buds, and the yellow bellied sapsucker will drill holes in its bark to collect the sweet sap. This close-grained hardwood is very useful in the lumber trade. Native American peoples throughout the Northeast have a history of using this tree for building materials and medicinal cures derived from its bark, which is rich in volatile essential oils.

Botanical Name Betula alleghaniensis
Common Name Yellow birch, golden birch
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size 60 - 75' tall
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Fertile sandy loam, well-drained, acidic to alkaline
Soil pH 4.0 to 8.0
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow catkins
Hardiness Zones 3 to 7
Native Areas Northeastern North America
Close up of peeling golden brown bark of birch tree in sunlit forest
The golden brown bark of this mature yellow birch in eastern Pennsylvania shows this tree's unique beauty and bark texture.  Nicholas A. Tonelli / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

How to Grow Yellow Birch

Because of its unusually wide canopy, choosing a suitable location is of paramount importance when planting this tree. Its canopy can get up to fifty feet wide, so give it plenty of room. The bright yellow and golden leaves on display in autumn would be a stunning accompaniment to other trees that get bright in autumn, like Japanese maples, sweetgum trees, bronze maples, or red oaks.

Soil

The yellow birch can be grown in soil that has a wide-ranging pH, and while it tends to prefer slightly acidic soil, it tolerates alkaline soil just fine. The soil should be rich and well-drained, though. A sandy loam is ideal, but like other birch trees, the yellow birch is adaptable to varying soil conditions.

Light

Full sun is ideal for the yellow birch, but if grown in a woodland landscape, or near buildings, it can handle partial shade also. The seedlings will not germinate in full shade.

Water

The yellow birch doesn't have any special water needs beyond normal rainfall. In times of drought, however, it will benefit from a weekly deep watering at the roots.

Temperature and Humidity

This tree is found throughout eastern Canada and New England, and as far south as Georgia, thought it tends to grow more abundantly in the Northeast. It does best within hardiness zones between USDA 3 and 7. It doesn't like extreme dryness or heat. If grown in a place with hot summers, its longevity will be shortened considerably. Also known as swamp birch, the yellow birch often grows naturally alongside ponds, swamps and in damp woodlands.

Pests and Maintenance

The yellow birch does have some insect pests that can become problematic: mainly birch leaf miners and birch skeletonizers. Like other birches, the bark can occasionally develop cankers. Pruning is recommended to keep the tree in good shape but wait until after the growing season; late fall (late November through early December) is ideal.The main reason to wait for pruning is because the bronze birch borer is active in spring and may be drawn to fresh cuts on the tree, and can cause damage. The yellow birch is fairly resistant to this destructive insect, but it's best to exercise caution and prune when the tree's growth has gone dormant.