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Birch Trees: 5 Favorites to Plant in a Landscape

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Birch Trees: 5 Favorites to Plant in a Landscape

January 17, 2018

“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches,” the poet Robert Frost wrote, praising the slender trees that can bend to the ground without breaking beneath the weight of an ice storm (or beneath a boy who climbs a trunk for the pleasure of riding it down).

One also could do worse than be a planter of birches. With their beautiful, papery bark and ghostly coloration, birch trees naturally become the center of attention in a landscape. Despite the trees’ drawbacks—birches are short-lived and susceptible to death from birch borer beetles or other pests—birches remain popular  thanks to their graceful shapes, small stature (compared to other popular landscape trees), white trunks, and distinctive peeling bark.

There are more than 60 species of birch and many cultivars of each. To help make a choice, we’ve rounded up five of our favorite birch trees to plant in a garden:

River Birch Trees: Betula nigra

See more in Garden Visit: A Galvanizing Garden in Sag Harbor, NY. Photograph by Cara Greenberg for Gardenista.
Above: See more in Garden Visit: A Galvanizing Garden in Sag Harbor, NY. Photograph by Cara Greenberg for Gardenista.

As seen above in a Sag Harbor, NY garden, “A river birch with spectacularly peeling bark is set in a bed of liriope near a side entrance to the house–a century-old worker’s cottage with a ‘second skin’ of horizontal wood slats, intended to provide privacy on a busy corner,” writes Cara Greenberg.

In a landscape: River birch trees make a statement, with their dramatically scaly brown bark (which peels and and create a layer of textural interest in a garden). Varieties such as  ‘Heritage’ with lighter-colored grayish bark will complement a wide range of foliage colors.

Where river birch trees grow best: Happiest in USDA growing zones 4 to 9, river birch trees are fast-growing (achieving heights of up to 40 feet within two decades) but relatively short-lived (with lifespans of up to 50 years).

Is a river birch tree the right choice for you? River birch trees canopies will spread over a diameter of about 35 feet; if you have a spot where it won’t feet crowded, this tree can create a visual vocal point in your garden.

The leaves and flower of a river birch tree. Photograph by Plant Image Library via Flickr.
Above: The leaves and flower of a river birch tree. Photograph by Plant Image Library via Flickr.

Paper Birch Trees: Betula papyrifera

Leaves of Betula papyrifera (Paper Birch) turn a bright yellow in autumn. Photograph by F.D. Richards via Flickr.
Above: Leaves of Betula papyrifera (Paper Birch) turn a bright yellow in autumn. Photograph by F.D. Richards via Flickr.

In a landscape: With papery bark that peels off trunks, these trees are often known as white birch trees. The tree has a single, slender trunk and gains visual impact when planted in groups to emphasize its spindly whiteness.

Where paper birch trees grow best: Native to North America and happiest in colder climates, this tree can survive in growing zones 2 to 7.

Is a paper birch tree the right choice for you? A short-lived tree, Betula papyrifera may live only tree decades in a warm climate; in colder growing zones, paper birch trees have lifespans as long as 100 years.

Bark from a paper birch tree peels off easily. Photograph by Justin Leonard via Flickr.
Above: Bark from a paper birch tree peels off easily. Photograph by Justin Leonard via Flickr.

Silver Birch Trees: Betula pendula

Photograph by Charlie Hopkinson.
Above: Photograph by Charlie Hopkinson.

Garden designer Jinny Blom added a “light canopy” to a garden in London’s Primrose Hill neighborhood by planting birch trees. See More in Garden Designer Visit: Jinny Blom in Primrose Hill.

In a landscape: With white, peeling bark and spade-shaped leaves, silver birch trees call attention to themselves in a garden. Planted en masse (as shown above), these slender-trunked trees will form a delicate shade canopy overhead.

Where silver birch trees grow best: Native to Europe and Asia, silver birch trees thrive in mountainous landscapes where the contours of the land provide a degree of wind protection. Widely grown in the US, silver birch trees are suitable trees for growing zones 2 to 7.

Is a silver birch tree the right choice for you? Silver birch trees have graceful, arching canopies that can spread to a diameter of 20 feet. Reaching heights of 40 feet, these trees are best placed in northern or eastern exposures with limited hours of sunlight.

A silver birch tree has spade-shaped leaves. Photograph by Donald Hobern via Flickr.
Above: A silver birch tree has spade-shaped leaves. Photograph by Donald Hobern via Flickr.

Gray Birch Trees: Betula populifolia

Above: On New York City’s High Line park, a leafy glade of gray birches and ferns is only a short distance above the crowds of museum goers at the Whitney Museum and the noisy commercial traffic on Washington Street. Photograph courtesy of Timber Press. See more at Required Reading: Gardens of the High Line.

In a landscape: Gray birch trees typically have multiple trunks, giving them a silhouette that looks as much like a very large shrub as a tree. “Several trees occur in a cluster, growing from the same root group,” notes the US Department of Agriculture’s Plant Guides.

Where gray birch trees grow best: A native of North America, this trees thrives in moist (or swampy) soil in growing zones 3 to 8.

Is a gray birch tree the right choice for you? “Gray birch is an attractive tree that is often used as a winter landscape plant or when space limitations require the use of trees with a smaller stature,” notes the USDA. “It can also be planted as a nurse tree to protect more valuable pines in the landscape that require protection to become established. ”

The airy leaves of a gray birch tree. Photograph by Dan Nydick via Flickr.
Above: The airy leaves of a gray birch tree. Photograph by Dan Nydick via Flickr.

Required Reading: New York: City of Trees.

Himalayan Birch Trees: Betula utilis

At Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, a Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii). Photograph by Wendy Cutler via Flickr.
Above: At Kilkenny Castle in Ireland, a Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii). Photograph by Wendy Cutler via Flickr.

In a landscape: “Excellent tree for very large home sites, parks, and open spaces,” notes Monrovia nursery. “A problem solver for low-lying sites too wet for many other species.”

Where Himalayan birch trees grow best: A tree that enjoys full sun and enough open space to showcase its 20-foot canopy, Himalayan birch is hardy in growing zones 4 to 7.

Is a Himalayan birch tree the right choice for you? A fast-growing tree, Himalayan birch can fill in an empty space in a landscape.

The leaves of Betula utilis. Photograph by Sten Porse via Wikimedia.
Above: The leaves of Betula utilis. Photograph by Sten Porse via Wikimedia.

Erman’s Birch Trees: Betula ermanii

Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer. Llanover Gardens in South Wales has been in the same family since the late \18th century; laid out two centuries ago, \15-acre parkland retains much of its original design. See more of the spectacular trees in A Family Affair: Lady Llanover’s Legacy in South Wales.
Above: Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer. Llanover Gardens in South Wales has been in the same family since the late 18th century; laid out two centuries ago, 15-acre parkland retains much of its original design. See more of the spectacular trees in A Family Affair: Lady Llanover’s Legacy in South Wales.

In a landscape: White bark with a pink cast and a strong tendency to peel will set off this ornamental species in a garden; it will benefit from a quiet backdrop to complement its showiness.

Where Erman’s birch trees grow best: Native to Siberia and other regions in Asia including Japan, it has a relatively limited range in North America (from growing zones 6a to 9b).

Is an Erman’s birch tree the right choice for you? Be prepared for this graceful tree to spread out. If given enough water and rich soil, an Erman’s birch tree will reach a statuesque (for birch) height of 80 feet.

In late summer, the leaves of Betula ermanii start to turn yellow along the edges in anticipation of a burst of golden autumn color. Photograph by Harum.koh via Flickr.
Above: In late summer, the leaves of Betula ermanii start to turn yellow along the edges in anticipation of a burst of golden autumn color. Photograph by Harum.koh via Flickr.

N.B.: With apologies to poet Joyce Kilmer, we think that we shall never see another plant as lovely as a tree. Before you add a tree to your landscape, see our Garden Design 101: Trees guide for growing tips and design ideas. And don’t miss:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for birch tree with our Birch Tree: A Field Guide.

Interested in other types of trees? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various trees (specimen, deciduous, evergreen) with our Trees: A Field Guide.

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