Yellow Birch is a long-lived and adaptable Wisconsin native that is, in our opinion, not planted nearly enough! It has the classic, showy, exfoliating bark of other birches, although with a yellow-bronze hue, which, along with its beautiful yellow fall color, makes it easy to see how it got its name. The flowers, called catkins, bloom before the leaves emerge and are one of the first signs of sweet, sweet spring. If that isn’t enough for you, this tree can live 150 years or more AND the inner bark and branches taste and smell like wintergreen. Yes, Yellow Birch, please take a bow.
May also be known as Swamp Birch, Silver Birch, or Gray Birch.
Good news! Yellow Birch has showy, exfoliating bark and fall color that provide interest throughout the year.
With a spread of up to 50 feet, this tree would be a tight squeeze for a small lot, the more space the better. Plant it in full sun as Yellow Birch can tolerate shade but will grow much more slowly as a result. Acidic, well-draining soils are preferred, although they are adaptable to other soils. The trees grown on our farm were raised in, and are adapted to, alkaline soil. Some salt exposure is tolerated. Compacted, clay soil, however, is a hard “no” for a birch, as they require a location with good drainage. Inundated or poorly drained soils will significantly slow growth.
Yellow Birch should ideally be given a spot with plenty of space to grow. Plant near a bank or in a low area where it can stay moist. This tree is at home in a park and ideal for edges of naturalized areas or restoration projects.
Yellow Birch draws in a multitude of animals large and small. Porcupine, beaver, and Snowshoe Hare browse the twigs and chew the bark. Red Squirrels will chew off twigs, collect seeds, and feed on birch sap while White-tailed deer readily devour seedlings, twigs, and leaves throughout the season. Mature trees can handle this, younger trees will need protection.
The caterpillars of the Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus) butterfly feed on the leaf and rest in leaf nests.
The seeds are prized by songbirds such as Pine Siskins, American Tree Sparrows, Common Redpoll, Black-capped Chickadees, Purple Finches, Slate-colored Juncos, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and the game bird: Ruffed Grouse.
In the summer, other vertebrates, such as the Silver-haired bat and the less common Hoary bat, will use large trees such as Yellow Birch as a roost.
Summer heat and humidity are stressors for Yellow Birch. Supplemental watering in the heat of summer and during times of drought is critical. Establishing a bark mulch ring and planting on the north side of the yard or house allows root zones to remain cool and moist, thereby reducing stress on the tree.
Birch trees attract and benefit all manners of wildlife. This is good! That said, it is important to protect a newly planted tree. A young tree needs more energy to establish its roots and will stress more easily if foraged on compared to a larger, established tree. Protect using a tree guard or fence.
Bronze birch borer and leaf miners are pests for all birches; stressed trees make easy targets. Yellow Birch is less susceptible to infestations; however, the bark on birches is thin – use caution when mowing or trimming around the tree. Any wound invites pests of all kinds to take hold. Keeping birches happy, by siting them well and keeping them wound-free, is the best line of defense against pests.
The average Yellow Birch can live to around 150 years of age. There are records of specimens being over 300 years of age! Yellow Birch is the largest of all birches in Wisconsin, capable of growing up to 95 feet tall!
Yellow Birch can naturally hybridize with Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) and Bog Birch (Betula pumila, syn. B. glandulifera).
Sugar Maples have an allelopathic effect on Yellow Birch seedlings, decreasing survivability around mature Sugar Maples. This allelopathy is short-lived and does not affect mature Yellow Birch.
Birch trees have a sugary sap, like Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum), that can be made into a tea or tincture. When boiled, the Yellow Birch’s characteristic wintergreen flavor evaporates, leaving a mild-flavored syrup. The sap has a lower sugar content than maple syrup sap, though it makes up for it with a higher yield.
The Ojibwa people used the inner bark medicinally as a diuretic, as well as to treat internal blood disease. The wintergreen-flavored twigs were used to flavor the medicine, making it more palatable. The bark was also used for storage containers, baskets, and dishes. The wood was used to build dwellings, wigwams, and canoes. The sap, which has a lower viscosity than maple syrup, was consumed as a beverage.
Birch bark is quite flammable. The peeling bark can be pulled into strips and used as a fire starter.
Other Wisconsin natives that share the same habitat: