A deciduous tree that goes dormant and ceases growth in the winter, the yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), native to Appalachia, the Upper Midwest and New England, is an attractive, sprawling tree named for its spectacular fall foliage. In favorable conditions, you can grow it in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 to 7.
Yellow birch grows up to 70 feet high with a rounded crown up to 50 feet wide. Its leaves are velvety green in spring, turning dark green in summer and striking, bright yellow and gold in autumn. Its bark is yellow-brown, red-brown, or shiny silver-gray in winter with horizontal lenticels. Lenticels are what look like fissures in the bark that allow air to pass through. As a tree matures, its bark becomes yellowish-bronze and peels horizontally. The tree gets its name from its peeling yellow bark. Yellow birch has a medium growth rate, meaning it grows from 13 to 24 inches a year.
Soil and Climate
You’ll find yellow birch growing naturally in cool, shady woods. It likes cool summers and moist soil in partial shade to full sun. It will not compete well in urban landscapes if the soil pH is 7 or higher. Soil pH measures the acidity or alkalinity of the soil on a scale of 1 to 14 with 7 being neutral. Soil pH below 7, usually moist soil, is acidic or “sour.” Soil pH above 7, usually dry soil, is alkaline or “sweet.” You can usually buy a kit from a garden supply center that will measure your soil pH.
Diseases and Pests
If you try to grow yellow birch outside of its natural range, it is susceptible to numerous pests and diseases that can disfigure or kill it. Your tree may be hit by bark cankers, leaf diseases and trunk rot. You’ll know when the bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius) has struck only when the top part of your tree suddenly wilts and dies. The birch skeletonizer (Bucculatrix canadensisella) is capable of destroying all the foliage on a yellow birch by August. Successive attacks by the birch skeletonizer leave it open to attack by the birch borer. Birches planted in dry urban lawns are especially vulnerable to attack by these diseases and the bronze birch borer.
Planting and Use
Although its showy bark and autumn foliage make it good for providing light shade on a lawn, you may find it difficult to locate yellow birch saplings for transplant at your local nursery. If you start a tree from seed, you’ll have to store the seeds in moist sand or peat at 41 degrees Fahrenheit for four to eight weeks before you sow them. They will germinate in 30 to 40 days at temperatures alternating between 90 F in the daytime and 59 F at night. Yellow birch is useful for planting around the edges of natural-appearing landscapes. Although it will grow in full sun, if you live in a hot or dry climate, the USDA recommends the cherry birch (Betula lenta), which grows from 50 to 60 feet tall in USDA zones 4 to 7.
- Ohio Department of Natural Resources: Yellow Birch (Betula Alleghaniensis)
- U.S. Forest Service: Betula Alleghaniensis
- USDA Department of Natural Resources: Yellow Birch
- Arbor Day Foundation: Birch, Yellow Betula Alleghaniensis
- Northern Ontario Plant Database: Betula Alleghaniesis
- Ohio State University Extension: Bronze Birch Borer Management
- University of Illinois Extension: Sweet Birch, Cherry Birch
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images