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’s a 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.
Grows 50-100’ tall.
Grows in full sun or part shade.
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