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Birch: A Winter Wonder

The beauty of birch is revealed during the long, leafless winter.


Our winters in North Dakota are long—almost half the year. 

That is why birch trees are so valuable. Their peeling bark stands out in landscapes all winter long. As for the rest of the year, birches have lustrous green leaves in summer and bright yellow foliage in fall. Nice!

Birch trees are not the easiest of trees to grow. They demand cool, shaded soils to do well.

The healthiest stands of birch in nature are found in cool, moist soils and in groups of hundreds of trees. Unfortunately, we often plant birches as a solitary clump in the sunny front yard. This can be a very stressful place since birches are sensitive to heat. Borers can detect this stress and will kill these trees.

A north or east facing location is best. Keep birches out of the harsh afternoon sun.

Shredded bark and wood chip mulches are highly recommended. These organic mulches keep the soil cool and moist. They also shield the tree against bark-scraping mowers and weed whips. Birches have a thin bark and are especially sensitive to this damage. Understory plantings of ground covers or low-growing shrubs will also keep your birch cool.

Never use rock mulch around a birch. That is pure cruelty! Rock mulches trap heat, create stress and will attract borers to the tree.

Deep, infrequent irrigations can help your tree tolerate dry spells in summer. Roots will grow where the water is. If you water deeply, you will establish a deep root system. Shallow, frequent irrigations will develop a drought-sensitive, shallow root system.

Place your birch where you can appreciate its beauty, especially in winter. The light color of its bark will stand out even more with evergreen trees in the background.

Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is one of the best white-bark birches for home landscapes. Prairie Dream® (middle photo), an introduction from NDSU, tolerates the stresses of our climate and resists bronze birch borer (no birch is totally immune to borers). It was discovered in the Killdeer Mountains. Renaissance Reflection® is another fine paper birch, noted for its fast growth and pyramidal habit.

Several cultivars trace their roots back to Asia. Some of these trees (B. platyphylla) tolerate dry soils and heat, making them less attractive to borers. The Asian white birch Dakota Pinnacle® is popular for its narrow, columnar habit. It grows 35 feet tall and 10–12 feet wide, making it useful as a vertical accent in the garden or for use in screening. This NDSU introduction tolerates alkaline soils.

First Editions Parkland Pillar® is a selection of Dakota Pinnacle® discovered at Parkland Nursery in Alberta. It is narrower (only 6–9 feet wide) and dense in habit.

River birch (B. nigra) has a rich cinnamon-brown bark that peels beautifully (see bottom photo). It is more tolerant to drought than white-bark birches and is not attacked by bronze birch borer—great! However, the leaves of river birch will become chlorotic (turn yellow) if grown in alkaline soils, which dominate our state. Northern Tribute® river birch is a new NDSU introduction that is reported to show good tolerance to alkaline soils and will resist turning yellow in summer. River birches are hardy to Zone 4.

Avoid European white birch (B. pendula) including cutleaf varieties, which are highly susceptible to borers.

Written by Tom Kalb, Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University. Originally published in the NDSU Yard & Garden Report, November 15, 2014. Revised in November 2019. Photos were made available under Creative Commons licenses specified by the photographers: Marilylle Soveran; Dale Herman, North Dakota State University; and John Cutrell.

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