Birch Trees – All the Facts That You Need to Know

Around the world, we know the birch tree for its striking white bark. Birch trees grow across the Northern Hemisphere. Overall, the genus contains approximately 50 species.

Like alder trees, birch trees prosper on barren lands and support the soil to allow other plants to thrive. Birch trees grow to medium heights, but the tight, clustering canopy at the top of the tree gives an elongated look. Because the birch tree is a pioneer species, it also acts as an excellent food source for birds and animals.

Birch are hardwood trees and belong to the Tree family that is known as the Birch Family (Betulaceae) which also includes the Alder (Alnus), Hornbeam (Carpinus), and Hazel (Corylus)

Birch grow and spread rapidly. This speedy growth and spread can even be a threat to other plant life as it takes over easily.

Birch trees are incredibly old with fossils dating back almost 50 million years ago. They found the oldest fossils in Washington State in the United States.

The wood from the birch tree is quite hard and difficult to work by hand. However, the bark is easy to strip and is easily formed into weatherproof coverings for canoes, bowls, and houses. All in all, the birch is a sturdy tree with an abundance of uses.

So How Many Kinds of Birch Trees Are There?

Scientists classify approximately 50 species as birch trees. The scientific name for the birch genus is Betula. Also, the Betula genus is part of the Betulaceae family along with the alder tree. While there are approximately 50 species in the Betula genus, scientists consider 11 of them to be threatened. The genus is further divided into five subgenera. Overall, the five subgenera are divided as such based on one differentiating criterion.

The Betulenta subgenus contains tree species with bark and twigs rich with wintergreen oil. Additionally, the female catkins stand erect on the branches of the trees. Some species in this subgenus are:

  •  Sweet birch (Betula lenta)
  • Yellow birch (Betula allegheniensis)
  • Japanese cherry birch (Betula grossa)

Secondly, the Betulaster subgenus contains trees with large leaves. Additionally, the female catkins hang from the branches. Two species in this subgenus are:

  • Alder-leaf birch (Betula alnoides)
  • Monarch birch (Betula maximowiciziana)

Thirdly, the Neurobetula subgenus contains trees with erect catkins and without oils. Some species in this subgenus are:

  • Korean birch (Betula costata)
  • Himalayan birch (Betula utilis)
  • Chinese birch (Betula chinensis)

The Betula subgenus contains trees with hanging female catkins and without oils. Some species in this subgenus are:

  • Silver birch (Betula pendula)
  • Alaska birch (Betula neoalaskana)
  • Gray birch (Betula populifolia)

Finally, the Chamaebetula subgenus contains dwarf birches. These dwarf birches are shrubs with hanging female catkins. Some species in this subgenus are:

  • Dwarf birch (Betula nana)
  • Swamp birch (Betula pumila)
  • Arctic dwarf birch (Betula humilis)

How Large Do Birch Trees Grow?

Birch trees do not tower over the forest. In fact, the maximum height of a birch tree is between 40 and 70 feet. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, birch trees grow at a fast rate. Typically, they grow one to two feet a year. Overall, the width of the birch tree is between 20 and 35 feet. 

What Does a Birch Tree Look Like?

Birch trees are deciduous trees with leaves that change into striking colors in the autumn before they fall off. The leaves range from red, orange, and golden yellow. Overall, the bark is thin and paper-like. Furthermore, the bark has a beautiful white bark.

Birch Bark

While the birch is medium in size, the leaves are clustered near the top of the tree. The leaves are dark green in spring and summer. They range in shape from oval to triangular to diamond shaped.

Where Can I Find a Birch Tree?

Birch grow only in the Northern Hemisphere. You will primarily find them growing in the temperate and colder or boreal climates. Ultimately, North America claims most of the birches, but Europe and Asia also have birch species.

The species found in Canada and the United States include the yellow birch, paper birch, and many others. A few species such as the cherry birch and the Virginia round-leaf birch grow further south. Generally speaking, we consider birch to be a pioneer species. They grow best in barren lands. Eventually, the tree will produce seeds and spread quickly. The birch will grow and scatter easily. Given these points, the spread of the birch can become a problem for other native species.

The species in Europe prefer the cold weather of the north. The tundra of Northern Asia also heavily supports the birch genus. Species grow in certain areas and do not spread across the continent. All in all, the most common birch growing in Europe is the European White Birch.

How Long Can a Birch Tree Live?

The birch does not live a long life. According to the USDA, even in its natural habitat, the birch will only live to upwards of 50 years. However, the birch planted in backyards and gardens rarely live past 20 years of age. Birch are incredibly old trees as far as the genus goes. Notably, the birch was one of the first species to appear after the ice age.

Can I Grow a Birch Tree?

If you desire to add the striking white bark of the birch to your yard, you should be able to with ease. For the most part, birch trees are quick growing and hardy. They grow best near water where the soil is moist and sandy. Moreover, the birch tree does not like heat. It prefers a cooler climate with some humidity. Birch have an incredibly shallow root system which can wreak havoc on water and sewer lines as well as your other plants.

Collecting a catkin in late summer will ensure you have seeds to plant for next season. During winter, place your seeds in soil and in the fridge so that they receive an ample cold rest time. Start them inside in a pot in the spring. Once a seedling grows, for a month inside, transfer the seeding to an outdoor pot. If the threat of frost is still present in your area, remove the seedling from the outdoors for the period of frost.

When your seedling reaches 18 inches in height, it is ready to be permanently transferred to the earth. Birch leaves need full sun to thrive. Finally, for the first growing season, water the seedling weekly to ensure the soil is adequately moist.

It is Time to BRANCH out into some fun tree facts!      

  • The oldest birch tree is 260 years old.
  • Birch trees are commonly found in the game, Minecraft.

What Are Some Uses For Birch Trees?

Natural Uses

Birch have excellent medicinal qualities. By and large, it may be one of the most heavily used trees in medicine today. Birch treats joint pain and urinary tract issues like stones and infections. Some species present with leaves made of methyl salicylate. Methyl salicylate is an ingredient used in creams and other over-the-counter medications to relieve body and muscle aches when applied topically. Nonetheless, too much methyl salicylate is toxic to humans.

The bark from the birch is waterproof. This feature made it highly sought after throughout history for canoes and lodgings.

Most notably, the birch tree wood burns easily and catches quickly. This is most important to remember in case of a survival situation. Birch bark burns so easily it can even burn when still wet.

A manufacturer developed xylitol from the logs while making paper. Xylitol is an artificial sweetener on the market that is making significant progress. While it is better than many other sweeteners for your dental health, it is severely poisonous to dogs.

Artistic Uses

Birch are used as an ornamental addition to yards and gardens. The unique white bark creates a stunning contrast compared to the dark browns of the woods.

The ancient Celts revered the birch tree. It purified the family and house from old spirits during a celebration like Halloween. Also, the birch tree held fertility customs as it grows its leaves very early in spring and signals the season.

Residential/Commercial Uses

The lumber of the birch holds a light color. This allows for many applications involving beauty and finery. Lately, we are seeing birch in countertops, cabinetry, and furniture. For many of us, the most likely place we have seen birch wood is in the doctor’s office. Manufacturers develop almost all tongue depressors are birch wood. All in all, the wood from birch trees is durable. It stands up to significant weight and is shock resistant. Birch plywood is the strong plywood sheets on the market today.

Paper manufacturers grind up birch trees to make paper pulp. Although, there are many uses for the by-products of the tree, as the bark is seldom used in the paper-making process.

Wrap Up

Birch trees provide beauty in the home from lumber and outside. The beautiful white bark helps them to stand out along a landscape. Furthermore, the vast array of colors the leaves take on during autumn makes them an even more striking image. We do not know birch trees for their longevity or their vast size, but we use them in medicine and in manufacturing. Manufacturers use birch heavily in the development of paper. All 50 species of the birch grow in the Northern Hemisphere and prefer the cooler climates of the north. Finally, if you desire to add this tree to your yard or garden, be aware that while it adds a unique color to the yard, the lifespan is very short.

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