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Larger and more shade tolerant than other native birches, this tree has a broad, rounded crown with drooping branches and derives its common name from the curly, translucent, golden-yellow bark that peels off in thin, papery ringlets. Its leaves also turn bright yellow in fall.  This slow-growing tree grows most commonly to around 50 feet and prefers moist, well-drained, fertile loams and moderately well-drained sandy loams, although it will adapt to other soil types and poorly drained soils. It tolerates partial shade and drought once established.  In Ohio, it’s found in moist, cool ravines in the northeast and at higher elevations in the Appalachians.  When given plenty of space, it will develop a massive candelabra form; however, if forced to compete for space in the canopy, growth habit will be taller and thinner. In order to grow among the faster-growing trees in the forest, it needs overhead light, crown-expansion space, and nutrients. Yellow birch is extremely long lived, usually surviving 150 years but sometimes up to 300 years.   


It’s considered the most valuable of the native birches because it’s an important source of hardwood lumber; it hosts over 300 species of Lepidoptera, which attract numerous songbirds; and it offers breeding habitat for many small mammals and birds, including ruby-throated hummingbirds.  


The most distinctive feature of the tree may be its bark, which peels in horizontal strips and is immensely attractive in winter.  Young bark is a shiny, silvery yellow (another name is silver birch) that becomes more bronzed yellow as it matures.  As the tree ages, the bark peels copiously until a thick, irregularly cracked outer bark is revealed. Another easily identifiable characteristic is the wintergreen scent of the inner bark and twigs.  Sweet birch looks and smells like yellow birch, but the latter has hairy buds and stems.  


Native habitats include ravines, lowland woods, and moist soils along stream banks or swamp edges as part of a mixed stand of trees.  Also known as swamp birch, this tree provides beautiful erosion control for moist ponds, lakes, or stream banks.  Use it as a specimen or shade tree or plant it near wetlands and on river banks.  It’s excellent for naturalized areas, especially on slopes.


Plant Characteristics:

Grows 50-100’ tall.  


Grows in full sun or part shade.


Prefers dry-to-moist, well-drained soils. Tolerates poorly drained sites.


Long, yellowish male catkins and erect female catkins grow in clusters or singly at the tips of shoots, turning from green to purplish yellow in April and May.  The fruit, a winged nutlet, matures in early fall and is dispersed by wind in early fall.


Dark-green leaves are elliptical and 4” long with fine, double-toothed edges and pointed tips.  Fall color is bright yellow.


Diameter of trunk is typically 2-4’.  Bark is silvery yellow when young (a common name is silver birch), becoming more bronzed yellow as it matures.  


Wildlife Value:

Host plant for 317 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including the mourning cloak and red-spotted admiral butterflies and the definite tussock moth (here in that order, caterpillars first). Yellow birch trees provide food and breeding habitat for numerous species of birds and other wildlife. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill the trunks for sap, and the resultant slow-dripping sap attracts small insects. Hummingbirds then feed on the insects and the sap. Small, upright cones release seed in early spring, providing food at a time of scarcity for pileated woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, songbirds, pine siskins, red squirrels, and various other species of birds and small mammals. Young saplings are a favorite browse of white-tailed deer and rabbits. Beaver and porcupine chew the bark.


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Various tribes of Native Americans made a decoction from the bark for blood purification, skin ailments, and to use as a cathartic.


The trunk can be tapped in early spring before the leaves unfurl to make an edible syrup that’s lower in sugar than maple syrup. The leaves make a unique and beautiful addition to salads. The inner bark can be dried and ground into a powder for making cereals or bread.


The wood of this birch is prized because of the ease with which it can be carved, turned, stained, and polished. Around 75% of lumber marketed as birch comes from yellow birch trees. It’s used to make furniture, paneling, plywood, cabinets, boxes, woodenware, handles, and interior doors. In the past, it was valued for its ability to regenerate after being cut down.


Yellow birch chips can be used to produce ethanol and other products.

Birch, Yellow, Betula alleghaniensis

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