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Birch: A winter wonder

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

Close-up of birch barkOur winters in North Dakota are long—almost half the year. So when it comes to landscaping our yard, it makes sense to consider how our landscapes look during winter.

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 stressful place since birches are sensitive to heat. Borers can detect this stress and will kill these trees.

Keep birches out of the harsh afternoon sun. A north or east facing location is best. Keep its soil cool with shredded bark mulching. Understory plantings of ground covers or low-growing shrubs will also keep the birch cool. 

Prairie Dream® paper birchNever use rock mulching around a birch. That is pure cruelty! Rock mulches trap heat and inflict deadly pain. Birches can’t take it.

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®, an introduction from NDSU, tolerates the stresses of our climate and resists bronze birch borer (Fig. 6). Keep in mind that no birch is totally immune to borers. Renaissance Reflection® is another fine paper birch, noted for its fast growth and pyramidal habit. 

The most popular white-bark birch in the Midwest is ‘Whitespire’ gray birch (B. populifolia). Its tolerance to heat makes it resistant to borers. Its bark does not peel much.

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 30 feet tall and only 8 feet wide, making it useful as a specimen in the garden or for use in screening or boulevards. Heritage® river birchThis NDSU introduction tolerates alkaline soils.

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

River birch (B. nigra) is another handsome birch, but its adaptability is limited. River birch has a rich cinnamon-brown bark that peels beautifully (Fig. 7). 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 turn yellow if grown in alkaline soils, which dominate our state (this is iron chlorosis). River birches are hardy to Zone 4.

Written by Tom Kalb, Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University. Published in the NDSU Yard & Garden Report, November 15, 2014. 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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