Description & Overview

Paper Birch, commonly called White Birch, is one of Wisconsin’s most iconic native trees found in the northern and southern parts of the state. Betula papyrifera is prized for its prominent and phenomenal paper-like peeling bark, making it preeminent among other birches. A true paragon for exfoliating bark, Paper Birch is a popular landscape plant that provides pizzazz and picturesque fall color.

Core Characteristics

Category: Tree

Wisconsin Native: Yes

USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 2

Mature Height: 50 feet

Mature Spread: 35 feet

Growth Rate: Moderate

Growth Form: Upright. Oval.

Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade

Site Requirements: Grows best in medium to wet well-draining soils.

Flower: Monoecious. Male catkins appear in drooping slender spikes. Female catkins are erect, spur-like and cylindrical.

Bloom Period: April-May

Foliage: Ovate to nearly triangular. Dark Green. Irregularly toothed.

Fall Color: Bright Yellow

Urban Approved: No

Fruit Notes: Pendulous catkin containing several tiny winged nutlets.

Suggested Uses

Paper Birch’s most striking feature is its peeling white bark and bright yellow fall color. Its white bark exfoliates in paper-like strips, revealing the inner layer of orange-brownish bark. If you find it growing in the wild, often, it will be a single stem. Although, they can be trained to be multi-stem. Multi-trunked individuals are more commonly found in the landscape setting, although they can occur naturally. In youth, it has a loose-pyramidal form but develops into an irregular oval to rounded shape with age. Paper Birch will lightly cast shade as its ovate to nearly triangular dark green leaves are only 2-4″ long.

This tree is often planted in groups but it’s also works well as a stand-alone landscape specimen. Paper Birch makes a wonderful transitional planting from woods to open ground when used gradually.

Keep in mind that the bark of Paper Birch does not develop that iconic papery-white characteristic until the trunk and branches are at least 1″ – 1.5″ in diameter. The timing of this change can vary from individual to individual – some plants may develop that white exfoliating bark characteristic earlier, while others may acquire it later. This change occurs when the branches or the trunk is at least 1″- 1.5″ in diameter.

Paper Birch, commonly called White Birch, is one of Wisconsin's most iconic native trees found in the northern and southern parts of the state. Betula…

Wildlife Value

Numerous birds feed on the buds, catkins, and seeds, such as ruffed grouse, redpoll, pine siskin, and chickadee. These birds obtain a considerable portion of their annual diet from birch seeds. Porcupine and beavers will feed on the bark, although porcupine primarily feeds on the inner layer of bark. Snowshoe hares, shrews, and voles browse on seedlings and saplings. These small mammals are critical prey for many carnivores like fox, fisher, and raptors.

Aside from sustaining numerous birds and mammals, Paper Birch also makes a lovely nesting site for woodpeckers, nuthatch, and swallow. It’s a favorite of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which peck holes in the bark to feed on the sap. The holes left behind are known as sap wells, drawing in squirrels and even hummingbirds.

Paper Birch is a larval host plant for the lunar moth and supports the larvae of the Eastern tiger swallowtail.

Maintenance Tips

Paper Birch is best grown in moist to wet, well-draining soils, often found in sandy or rocky soils but will tolerate a variety of soil textures. You can site it in full sun but it will appreciate some afternoon shade to protect it from the intense summer heat. This birch likes consistent moisture, so providing light shade will help keep its roots cool and prevent it from drying out.

Provide a generous ring of bark mulch to further help cool those roots and prevent the tree from drying out.

Paper Birch can develop chlorosis on more alkaline sites, and best performance is observed where soil pH is 6.5 or below. In areas with excessively high alkalinity, consider substituting birch for something like Bur Oak or Chinkapin Oak as an alternative.

Paper Birch needs little pruning, but if necessary, pruning can be done during the dormant season. Do not prune in winter or spring because it will bleed sap and open the door for insects or diseases.

We invite you to check out the Arborist For Hire lookup at the Wisconsin Arborist Association website to find an ISA Certified Arborist near you.

Paper Birch, commonly called White Birch, is one of Wisconsin's most iconic native trees found in the northern and southern parts of the state. Betula…

Pests/Problems

Bronze birch bore is perhaps the Midwest’s most severe pest of birch trees. The bronze birch borer is a secondary problem, meaning it usually only attacks trees already in a stressed or weakened state because of drought, disease, nutrient deficiency, or injury. Improper siting is a common reason for encounters with the bronze birch borer. Trees sited properly are often healthy and vigorous, which are less attractive to the borer and therefore more likely to survive.

This larva spends the winter in small cells beneath the bark and transforms into pupae in spring. The adults typically emerge in Wisconsin in early June and may continue into July. The adults chew their way through the bark and branches, leaving behind their iconic D-shaped exit hole – a helpful indicator to find out if you’re having problems with the bronze birch borer. Their damage causes girdling, preventing water and nutrients from moving above the attack site. Typically, it takes 3-4 years to kill the entire tree. Although, entire branches may die within only a couple of months if feeding is extensive. Trees planted in very poor sites or areas where the bug is already present may die only one year after infection.

Paper Birch is perhaps the most susceptible to the bronze birch borer among all our native birches – River Birch has the highest natural resistance to this insect pest.

Prevention is your best method of control. Making sure your birch is happy and healthy is the best thing you can do to protect the birch from this insect. For chemical treatment, we recommend you consult with an ISA Certified Arborist near you.

It’s is also susceptible to aphids, birch leaf miner, and birch skeletonizer – although these pests are minor compared to bronze birch borer.

Leaf Lore

Betula papyrifera has several common names, so depending on your region, you may also know this tree as White Birch or Canoe Birch. The specific epithet papyifera means “paper-bearing”.

Paper Birch wood is used extensively in wood products like furniture, cabinets, and general-purpose lumber. One of the reasons it is used so often is that it’s easily worked and takes finishes and stains readily.

The sap can be made into syrup, wine, beer, and medicinal tonics. Native Americans used its bark for baskets, storage containers, mats, baby carriers, moose and bird calls, torches, household utensils, and canoes. Because the wood was used to make canoes, it is known as Canoe Birch in some regions. Native Americans also used Paper Birch for its strong yet flexible wood for spears, bows, barrows, snowshoes, and sleds.

Companion Plants

Paper Birch has many compatible companion plants thanks to its wide native range and adaptability. For example, when you find Paper Birch growing in the wild, common forest associates include Sugar Maple, Canadian Hemlock, Balsam Fir, Red Oak, White Spruce, Northern White Cedar, and Chokecherry.

There is a lot you can do in a landscape setting. One of the most simple and effective ways to highlight Paper Birch’s characteristics is to plant a carpet of groundcover plants around your tree, such as Stone Crop, Creeping Phlox, Bugleweed, or Creeping Juniper. Also, check out our article for 6 Native Groundcovers for Pollinators.

Because Paper Birch produces small, inconspicuous flowers in spring, they aren’t generally considered an ornamental flowering tree. Planting smaller flowering shrubs underneath your birch can brighten up the planting bed. Smaller flowering shrubs that would be right at home under a birch tree include Viburnum, Beautyberry, American Elderberry, Dwarf Lilac, Spirea, or Dwarf Bushhoneysuckle.

If you want to compliment the bark as much as possible, consider Holly or Redosier Dogwood. These shrubs provide a lovely visual contrast with the bark from their wintertime berries or leafless colored stems.

Paper Birch, commonly called White Birch, is one of Wisconsin's most iconic native trees found in the northern and southern parts of the state. Betula…
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Written by Miles Minter