Birch Notes

Birch Notes

The Birch

Without question, one of the most popular trees for the home and landscape design is the white-trunked birch. There are only a few trees that have such an elegant and clean-looking white appearance, which is a welcomed contrast to the greens and browns of summer foliage. For the same reason Quaking Aspen is popular, along with Sweetgum and Alder to a lesser extent. But the birch is the most popular because of the wide range of plant zones and planting conditions, and the many hybrid varieties that are available.

The genus is "Betula", and are part of the Birch Family (Betulaceae), which has over 100 members (the birches having about 40 species), and includes Alders (Alnus), Hornbeams (Carpinus), Hophornbeams (Ostrya), and Hazelnuts (Corylus). Most noted other characteristics are the small round leaves with jagged or serrated edges, and the birch seed-cones, called strobili. Those little brown hanging seed holders that fall apart when the seeds get ripe.

The birches are planted nationwide, in almost all plant zones, and naturally found throughout Zone 2. They are typically in areas that are cool and moist, needing that extra water when the weather gets warm and dry.

They are popular because of their versatility in the landscape plan. The size is small to medium, with 50 to 60 feet being common. They have shallow root systems that are generally not intrusive or destructive, but large trees can have large surface roots. Birches can be planted close to the house or buildings, a stand alone accent in the yard, and used to contrast other plants or building characterisitics. Birch are not a good shade tree, they tend to have a medium-tight shape and small leaves. The most popular use is to plant birch in lines such as along a fenceline or driveway. They are planted an average of six feet apart, but that can vary according to preference.

The birch clump is a very popular way to fill an area or create visual interest. Their is a debate whether to plant three trees (average number) close together to make a clump, or one multi-stem tree. It is a personal preference and the result is about the same. The growth rate of planting three trees is more even and they get bigger faster, but the muliple stem tree adds a very natural look.

There are about 40 natural species of birch, but many hybrids. The most popularly grown birches are --

European White Birch, grows up to 80 feet
Paper Birch, 60 to 90 feet
Jacmonti Birch, 50 to 80 feet
Whitespire Birch, 50 to 80 feet
Japanese White Birch, 50 to 60 feet
Monarch Birch, 50 to 80 feet
Gray Birch, 25 to 30 feet

(Other Non-White Birches)
Yellow Birch, grows 60 to 80 feet
Gold Birch, 50 to 60 feet
Red-Bark Birch, 40 to 60 feet
River Birch, 40 to 50 feet
Water Birch, 20 to 25 feet
Sweet Birch, 50 to 60 feet

They grow fairly fast once they get established, up to several feet a year. They add beauty and value like no other tree, and birch firewood is the best!

The Bronze Birch Borer

The birches are planted nationwide, in almost all plant zones, because the beauty of their white trunks is unique and adds an elegance in the landscape design. The white-trunked species, such as the European White, Gray, Jacmonti, Japanese White, Whitespire, and others, are typically found growing in moist cool conditions, and they happily live out their lifespans without the slightest problem. Peace and harmony aside, one of the stark realities of the plant world is the presence of pests. The Bronze Birch Borer (Agrilis anxius), has killed and deformed more birch than any other pest (of "birches") in the landscape design.

All trees have their pests, some of which have become popularized and better-known because of the popularity of a particular tree. Mis-information is also widespread, in particular with the birch and birch-borer. A serious pest, but it need never be a problem either. Gardeners and retail nurseries shy away anything that might cause a ripple in their otherwise tranquil facades, and their general lack of knowledge is obscene. Books and printed source materials are good, but also put into perspective the author's view and background. Neither good nor bad, just we all have our perspectives. The garden and outdoor world is anything but tranquil, it's a war-zone! It's plant against plant, bugs against plants, diseases against plants, and plants against man. Every life-form is fighting for survival and to occupy its niche on the battlefield. The birch and birch borer are just one pair of combatants in the epic struggle for life.

The white birches are still the most widely planted tree in the country for ornamental purposes, and for the most part, they will live out their lives without any problems. Stress is the key factor that attracts the borer. Like a pheromone attractant, they somehow smell or sense a birch that's weak, and therefore feed on its cambium layers. Not just on white birches, but all Betula species, the brown birches and grays also.

What the borer does is tunnel into stems and girdles the living tissue, the Cambium layer. Soon, the tree has a dead branch, then another, and eventually the tree is gone.

There are a couple things to do. First, cut off the dead or dying branches and "burn" them. The tunneled stems are full of eggs and beetles, and burning them is the only effective treatment to get rid of them. Trees should next be sprayed with Lindane.

By the way, Lindane is about the only available chemical to kill borers, bark beetles, and weevils. Lindane is effective, but very nasty! This is not a chemical to handle incorrectly. Read the label, wear gloves, eye protection, full body covering, a face mask, and gloves. Safety first with Lindane, you won't get a second chance.

The roots are the key. Birch have a natural occurrence of "die-back" in the winter. Sometimes, the branches or twigs naturally die back, due in part to the harshness of the winter weather. This condition can weaken the trees, and attract borers. In the home landscape design, tree roots are weakened by lack of watering, and soil temperatures getting too hot. The natural environment is down to Zone 2, and planted in warm climates, the summer heat causes too much warmth of the soil surface, and weakens the tree roots. The beetles sense that, and will fly for miles to attack the trees.

Because the birch have shallow roots, keep them watered during the summer months, do add fertilizer once in a while, and where practical, have a mulch layer. A several inch layer of mulch will protect the soil surface from getting hot, and hence keeps the roots moist and healthy. Mulch can be a layer of bark or leaves, compost, lawn clippings, etc. You can also plant a groundcover around the trees which will become a "live mulch", and add beauty to the landscape design. Plant ivy, bedding plants, or low-growing shrubs. Since you keep one watered, they both get watered. Either way, mulching is important for birches.

If you had a birch die from borers, does it mean you can't have birch trees? No. The borers are attracted to "weak" trees. Simply nature design - healthy trees resist insects and disease. Weak trees are attacked, and its a matter of "survival of the fittest". Just take some simple precautions and provide little extra care for the birch, and you'll greatly reduce the risk of beetle problems.

What's in a Name - River Birch

So what's in a name? A name is a name except when talking about trees and plants. The River Birch, the actual River Birch is a good example.

Betula nigra, named by the botanist Linnaeus, is the tree that is found across the eastern one-third of the country from the southern New England states to Texas, and into Florida. This is the tree that is naturally found in deep moist well drained soils along streams and wet areas. The Latin name "nigra" refers to the black color, the bark in this case, but the bark can vary from cinnamon to brown, to black, and even gray. But this is the name Linnaeus gave it, and only the common names change from region to region.

Because common names change continually, often due to the outward appearance, the scientific names are the names of true definition. River Birch is also known as Water Birch, Red Birch, Blue Birch, and Black Birch. Strangely enough, this is a dark-skinned tree, so we should never hear these called Yellow, Gold, Silver, Gray, or White Birches. The is a Red Birch, which is Betula fontinalis and another species called B. albo-sinensis. The Sweet Birch, B. lenta is also called the Black Birch, since its trunk tends to be more black than reddish in color.

The names come from observations during the various periods of the life cycle, and often the twigs and trunks are used. These are two of the poorest indicators of a species, whereas the fruits and seeds are the best species indicators. The twigs of the River Birch can start off cinnamon colored, and covered with that powder sugary look. The white bumps or roughness on the stems are air-holes called lenticels. These are very common on many of the birches, especially the white birches. As the stem gets older, the color can then change to a red, then brown, and even grayish hues. The trunk also changes its outward color schemes from a smooth cherry reddish to brown, to gray, and even black with rough scaly bark. Although not a rainbow tree in any respect, it is easy to become swayed by the outward appearances.

Location is often a misnomer for naming trees. The River Birch is found typically along rivers, hence the original sticking name. There is a Swamp Birch and a Bog Birch, and probably other topographical associations as well. There are several species linked with this name, but overall, the birches like plenty of water. Regional names therefore can stick as well. The Mississippi Birch, I'm sure is out there somewhere, and who knows how many names there are for the real River Birch.

The leaves too are used to differentiate tree species, but most of the birch leaves look very similar, so there is less of a name association syndrome with the leaves. Otherwise River Birch might be called Sawtooth Birch or Green Birch.

The actual River Birch is a fairly popular tree for ornamental usage, planted just like any other birch in a moist sunny locale. The plant zone range is 6 to 9, and there are several hybrids of these also. On the wood production side, this tree is used, but its commercial significance is limited. Often its harvested with Beech and Maple, and other woods, and the merchantable volume is not known. These reproduce easily by seed, so its not a question of shortages, more like there are other trees to use for the same purposes. This is true in landscaping as well. One feature interesting about the wood of the River Tree is that's its hard and more resistant to decay than the other birches.

When talking about trees and plants, the River Birch especially, think of "Betula nigra" first.

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