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Birch Trees: Planting & Caring

 

Beloved for their paper white bark, birch trees are part of the Betula genus and come in an incredible array of varieties with 18 native to North America alone. Birches were among the first trees to become established after the glaciers receded.

Birches are hardy, quick growing, and most require moist, sandy and loamy soil for solid growth. Birch trees are the rare deciduous trees that make an impact in the winter landscape with their striking white bark creating visual appeal even when leaves are gone.

Designing With Birch Trees
The striking white bark of the birch tree looks great when set against evergreens. They also work beautifully as specimen tree focal points in a garden.

Birch trees also provide dramatic punctuation on walkways and driveways.

Planting Tips

Watering

Keeping your birch tree well-watered and staying mulched is critical to your tree's success.

Mulching

The Grade A Cedar or Cypress shredded bark provide the best mulch.

Fertilizing

Generally fertilizer is not needed unless a soil test reveals your tree's soil is lacking in nutrients. If a test reveals the need for a fertilizer, a slow-release fertilizer is best. We have LSU Ag Center soil test kits available here free of charge. Take a soil test and send it to the Ag Center with their service fee, and receive your personal results.

Placement

Birch trees are fast growers but require cool, moist soil to thrive. The challenge is to site them in a location where they will receive full sunshine on their leaves but where the soil will remain cool and moist. Most prefer being situated on the east and north side of your property where your home can provide the necessary afternoon shade.

Keep birch trees planted away from water lines. These thirsty trees have shallow roots that may grow toward your waterline.

Pruning

Insects tend to target birch trees where they are cut or damaged so keep trees free of damage and avoid excessive pruning.

River birch (Betula nigra)

River Birch is a well-known and widely used landscape plant. River birch is a medium sized tree, reaching 40' to 70' tall, not quite as wide. The trunk tends to form multiple large arching branches near the ground, and it generally is grown in landscapes with multiple stems. The bark exfoliates in sheets of tan, brown, copper or reddish-brown colored papery sheets in early years. As the tree matures, the bark at ground level becomes brown and furrowed. The leaves are a lustrous medium green, turning shades of yellow in fall. River birch is grown for its beautiful bark, handsome structure and light, airy shade.

Planting

River birch is well suited to areas that may be wet in spring and dry late in the season (consider its natural habitat that gets flooded in spring and often quite dry by fall). It requires full sun. It is not exactly drought tolerant, dropping interior leaves in reaction to this stressor, but it does rebound seemingly unaffected. It prefers a mildly to highly acidic soil (pH 6.5 or lower), and the leaves will become off-colored in a higher pH setting. Though often used to some degree of success in parking lot islands, river birch performs better in less-constrained sites where the roots can explore further.

Maintenance

Keep river birch well mulched to conserve soil moisture and minimize late summer leaf drop. Pruning is seldom required, but do so in the summer if necessary. Pruning in winter will cause the tree to "bleed" sap heavily. River birch trees have no major pest problems.

Short History

River birch is native to nearly all of the southeastern quarter of the U.S., from Massachusetts to Texas and all of the major river valleys in between, following the major river valleys into the Midwest as far north as central Minnesota and Wisconsin. These are the southernmost birches, which prefer the silt-laden bottomlands of the slow moving Mississippi and its tributaries, instead of the rushing streams and cold clear lakes where its birch relatives are found.

Although river birch has never been known commercially as a great source of lumber, it has been historically used for specialty projects as diverse as furniture, ox yokes, wooden shoes and hoops for rice casks. Today it is used minimally in the paper industry, for artificial limbs and for children's toys. River birch is most helpful to us as a living tree; It beautifies our landscapes and has even been used quite successfully on strip mine reclamation sites