Native to northern climates, paper birch trees are lovely additions to rural landscapes. Their narrow canopy produces dappled shade that makes it possible to grow these trees in a sea of groundcover plants such as wintergreen and barberry, and you can even grow grass under them.
Unfortunately, paper birches don’t fare well in the city where they struggle to survive in the face of pollution, heat and dry conditions. Although they love cool climates, the branches break easily on windy days, especially when weighted down with snow and ice. Despite these drawbacks, they are well worth growing for their beautiful bark that shines against a dark background.
What Is a Paper Birch Tree?
Paper birch trees (Betula papyriferia), also called canoe birches, are native to moist stream banks and lakesides in Northeastern United States and Canada. They have a single trunk, but nurseries like to grow them in clumps of three and call them “clumping birches.”
The lowest branches are just a few feet (91 cm.) off the ground, and in fall the foliage turns a blazing shade of yellow. Growing paper birch trees means you’ll always have something interesting to look at in the landscape.
Paper Birch Tree Facts
Paper birch trees grow as much as 60 feet (18 m.) tall and 35 feet (11 m.) wide, adding as much as 2 feet (61 cm.) per year in USDA plant hardiness zones 2 to 6 or 7 where winters are cold.
The tree’s most striking feature is its peeling white bark, which is highlighted with streaks of pink and black. In spring, it produces hanging clusters of catkins that are very attractive when in bloom. Most specimens have bright-colored fall foliage.
Paper birch trees are a larval host for luna moth caterpillars. They also attract a number of birds, including yellow bellied sap suckers, black-capped chickadees, tree sparrows and pine siskins.
Here are a few uses of paper birch in the landscape:
- Grow them in groups in moist beds and borders. Their thin canopy lets you grow other plants beneath them.
- Use paper birches to transition gradually from woods to open ground.
- Although the roots are shallow, they don’t usually rise above the surface of the soil, so you can use them as lawn or roadside trees.
How to Care for a Paper Birch Tree
Paper birches transplant easily with little shock. Plant them in a location with full sun and moist but well-drained soil. The trees adapt to most types of soil as long as it is cool in summer. It prefers long winters and mild summers.
Paper birches are susceptible to a number of insects, including the destructive bronze birch borers. If you live in an area where these insects are a problem, try planting a resistant cultivar such as ‘Snowy.’
You can also help the tree resist birch borers by fertilizing annually in spring and using organic mulch.
It’s best not to prune a paper birch unless absolutely necessary because it attracts insects and the tree bleeds copious amounts of sap when cut.