The Paper Birch
This cold-hardy American native is a joy to behold in the landscape.
Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is a classic symbol of the Northwoods and a beautiful specimen for landscapes. This American native tree is a reminder of our wilderness heritage, yet enhances the most refined landscapes with its graceful form and sublime colors.
A truly cold-loving tree, paper birch thrives in zones 2-6. It is a medium to tall tree, reaching fifty to seventy feet tall, rarely one hundred feet, at a moderate growth rate. The irregularly pyramidal form of its youth gradually gives way to an oval crown at maturity as it retains many lower branches into old age. Its bark is smooth and coppery brown as a sapling, turning the famous creamy-white with exfoliation that reveals the orange inner bark at about 3-4 years of age. Old trees gradually become marked with black, then somewhat furrowed. Dark green leaves of summer turn bright yellow in fall. Due to its resistance to the birch borer, paper birch is preferable to European white birch where the pest is present.
This species has the broadest east-west distribution of all the birches: from Greenland to New England, New York and Pennsylvania, west to Alaska, Washington, Montana and Nebraska. One of the most northerly growing of all trees, its range extends from the edge of the arctic tundra south into the range of the pantheon of eastern North American hardwoods.
Paper birch fills a role in forest ecology as a nurse tree. Being one of the first to sprout on bare ground, it provides protection for ensuing species to grow. As paper birch is relatively short-lived, it gradually gives way to maple, hemlock and spruce. Paper birch (a.k.a. white birch, canoe birch) is named for its stark white, exfoliating bark.
Outdoors men readily welcome its bark for its notorious ability to start a campfire in all types of weather (Avoid damaging living trees...only use bark from those that are dead and down). Birch bark was preferentially used by native people within the trees range for construction of canoes, dwellings and all types of containers for which a waterproof material was required.
The oil that makes its bark both waterproof and flammable is distilled for various uses. Birch tar was used as a glue and weatherproofing material. Birch essential oil is still used medicinally. Like sugar maple, paper birch can be tapped in the spring for its sap which is reduced into syrup.
In the timber industry, paper birch is useful as well. It is commonly used for pulpwood in paper making. It is useful for small items like toothpicks and popsicle sticks. It is also used to make plywood.
A choice site for planting paper birch includes cool, moist, deep, acidic soil and full sun. It is a thrifty plant, not requiring a wealth of nutrients. It does not tolerate high levels of pollutants, and so streetscapes, parking lots and other tough areas should be avoided. Container-grown and balled-in-burlap stock transplant equally well. A beautiful combination for winter viewing places paper birch in the middle with an evergreen screen behind and red-twig dogwood to the fore.
The paper birch’s tendency to hold on to lower branches may require some pruning as the tree comes into maturity. Pay particular attention to soil conditions and amend as needed to provide drainage at planting time. Keep the tree well mulched to maintain consistent soil moisture.