Though you may not know the names of many trees, most people can instantly recognize birch trees because of their distinctive beauty. But as an ornamental tree found in nurseries everywhere, can birch trees grow well in locations other than riverbanks?
The river birch grows along riverbanks naturally, but they actually can be planted nearly anywhere in the United States. Birch trees are rapid-growing, hardwood trees that are naturally tolerant and grow best in wet areas. Once established, birch trees do best as landscape trees in acidic soil.
If you would like to own some of that beauty for your property, we will show you the best places to plant birch trees and where they grow the best!
What Is A Birch Tree?
Birch trees are short-lived, fast-growing trees known for their distinctive bark patterns that originate from cooler regions of the northern hemisphere. They are used as ornamental trees as well as for lumber, and the papery bark has many uses, including pharmaceuticals.
Birch trees are prized for their stunning visual appeal throughout all seasons compared to most ornamental trees who only show off their innate beauty during Fall. The unique, white, curling bark of the birch tree looks amazing in any season, especially in Winter.
They have picturesque white bark that often is seen peeling off in large sheets contrasting with bold green saw-toothed leaves and are usually seen growing along riverbanks or streams.
Younger trees show off the characteristic peeling bark, but as they mature the lower regions of the trunk bark grow thicker into deeply furrowed, brown plates. All birch trees exhibit “toothy” outer edges on their leaves.
There are about 40 different varieties of birch trees from the iconic river birch that you’ve probably seen along rivers or creeks, to paper birch, and silver birch to name a few. For this article we will be focusing on the most popular birch varieties that are native to the United States, and where they grow the best.
If yuo were wondering more about paper birch, that’s the type with all the flakey bark! And no, you shouldn’t peel birch tree bark off if you see it flaking.
Do Birch Trees Only Grow on Riverbanks?
Birch trees can grow in a variety of places, not just along riverbanks. While the aptly named river birch does grow naturally along riverbanks and they easily establish themselves on their own, they can grow in many other areas.
Most birch trees need plenty of water when they are first planted, but once it is established, it will grow well in most areas and soils.
They do need plenty of sunlight in the canopy but also require a bit of cool shade and moist soil for the roots. This can be accomplished by planting ground covers, low-growing flowers, or a thick mulch bed to protect the shallow roots from getting too much sun.
What Climate Does A Birch Tree Grow Well In?
Birch trees are native to cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere like Europe, Canada, the USA, and the Himalayas. They can handle colder temperatures, but unless they are native to warmer climates they may not do as well in the farther southern regions. In the US birch trees tolerate winters as far north as zone 2 and can withstand summers as far south as zone 7.
Birch trees can tolerate extreme cold climates and are able to survive temperatures colder than -40F. They are supremely adapted to tolerate and exploit the harsh conditions of northern ecosystems that make most other trees (and people for that matter!) tap out.
Birch Trees Don’t Do Well In Drought
Birch trees have shallow roots that require a lot of water, especially when they are starting. They do well in areas that get a lot of rain or low-lying areas where water accumulates, but they can’t handle being wet all the time.
Once a birch tree has had a chance to be well established, it is relatively drought-resistant, but it can’t handle the dry, hot climes of the deep south.
Here Are The Best Places To Plant Birch Trees
Birch trees can grow in many places, with varying types of soil and water conditions; they don’t have to be along the banks of lakes and rivers to thrive. Here are 9 of the best places to plant birch trees!
Birch Trees Thrive In Areas With Full Sun
Birch trees need a lot of sun! At least 6 hours of full sun is needed to keep birch trees happy, but at the same time, you have to protect the roots and keep them shaded. There are several reasons why birch trees can’t grow in shade, so if you have areas in your yard or along with your property that get a lot of sun, that’s a good place to plant a birch tree (and have a picnic with your family of course!).
In the article, “How to Grow and Maintain a Healthy Birch Tree”, the USDA suggests that homeowners should place birch trees where the soil will be shaded, cool, and moist. It’s important to remember, however, that birch trees require full to partial sunshine on their leaves to grow well.
Birch trees send out sprawling lines of shallow roots that need to be protected from the strong sun. The ideal place to plant a birch tree if you have the structure is the north or east side of the building. This way your birch will get at least 6 hours of sunlight, and the roots stay cool and protected.
If you don’t have a building to prevent the sun from pounding the root system, you can simply mulch around the tree, or plant something along the base of the tree that will protect the roots.
Bulbs work well to protect the shallow roots of birches as well as low-lying ground covers like vinca, ornamental grasses, or other plants that don’t require deep soil to thrive in.
Fun Fact: did you know that black birch is one of the hottest burning firewoods?
Birch Trees Do Well Along Creeks Or Riverbanks
Birch trees grow well along riverbanks or other areas of running water. If you have a creek or river running through your property, you could plant a line of birch trees along the water’s edge. You will have a picturesque scene of unmatched natural beauty on your property!
When planting them, make sure the tree is back enough away from the bank that it won’t end up falling in. They love water, but aren’t the best swimmers! You may have to water them a bit for the first year, but once they have established themselves, they will find plenty of moisture from the river.
Birch Trees Like To Be Near Ponds
Do you have a natural pond on your property? Why not plant a few birch trees near the pond to offer some shade to the area and add an extra dose of beauty to the area. Only plant birch trees near natural water features, and not on ponds or fountains that you have spent a lot of money and time on as they can damage them.
If you have landscaped a pond or water feature on your property, planting a birch tree nearby is not recommended. Birch trees are known for seeking out water, and they could puncture the liner in that quest to find water.
Also, when Autumn hits, many of the falling leaves will get into the pond and possibly clog up the pumps or even harm fish or other animals if you have them!
Plant Birch Trees In A Landscape
Do you have a landscaped area of flowers and decorative shrubs, but you just need something more to top it off and make the area pop? Maybe you should think about planting a birch tree there! If the canopy can get plenty of sun, this could be a perfect place to plant a birch tree because you already have plenty of vegetation that will serve to protect the roots.
If you have plants that work well with shade or semi-shade, a birch tree could go well there because, after a short time, the canopy will spread out and provide a nice area of shade for your shade-loving plants.
Birch Trees Make A Beautiful Centerpiece
The beauty of birch trees with their striking white bark and light, airy canopy is the perfect specimen for centerpieces in your garden or landscaping. Birch trees grow fast, so in a few years, you will have a mature tree centerpiece. Add in some low-growing shrubs or flowers to contrast or accentuate the whitebark and you will have a stunning centerpiece in your garden!
Just be careful not to plant birch trees too close to sidewalks as the shallow roots could eventually crack or lift the concrete. Also, before planting, check to make sure there are no water pipes or drainpipes anywhere near the root system. Birch tree roots will seek out the tiniest cracks and get inside where they will eventually crack or clog the pipes.
Birch Trees Prefer Areas With Acidic Soil
Birch trees prefer acidic soil of 6.5 to 5.0 on the pH scale while most lawns prefer a neutral 7.0 pH.
So, if you have an area of your yard or garden that is more on the acidic side, and you just can’t get grass to grow well there, don’t alter the acidity, simply plant a birch tree there instead!
Plant Birch Trees In The Wet Areas Of Your Garden
Other places that are great to plant birch trees are wet garden areas. Do you have an area in your garden that just seems to stay too wet for much of anything else to grow?
If you have an area that is simply too damp and other plants you put there drown or get root rot, try setting a birch tree there.
Maybe the area is a little lower than the rest of the garden. Possibly there is a lot of clay in the ground that holds water longer than other areas.
Whatever the reason for the extra wet area, it would be a great place to plant some birch trees. Birch trees can tolerate wet areas well and will help with the soggy problem.
Birch Trees Do Well In Low-Lying Wet Areas That Gather Water
Birch trees can also do well in that low-lying area in the back of your yard (or front, or side) that always seems to be soggy and swampy whenever it rains.
Your grass out there is always struggling because of the water that pools up out there, and as soon as someone walks across it, you have a muddy mess. You could clear that area up with a few birch trees!
You don’t have to hire an expensive excavator to regrade the area or have truckloads of fill dirt piled in the low-lying area to prevent the water from pooling up and messing up your yard. Instead, think about planting birch trees to take care of that area naturally.
It never hurts to plant trees. Not only are they pleasing to the eye, and provide shade and shelter for birds and other small animals but they also help to remove carbon dioxide from the air!
Birch Trees Can Be Planted In Sandy Soil
If you have very sandy soil, you know there aren’t many plants or trees that will grow in the loose soil, unless of course, you love to have spiky cactus all over. But then again, if your area is too wet, even the cactus will have a hard time surviving.
Birch trees with their shallow, sprawling roots love loose, quick-draining, sandy soil. If you mulch up the leaves that drop each year and leave them to degrade into the soil you will also help to condition the soil for further plantings as time passes.
The leaves will break down and provide missing nutrients than sandy soil usually doesn’t have.
If there is an area that is too sandy for anything else to grow well, then it’s probably a perfect place to set a few birch trees there.
Are Birch Trees Actually Good for Yards?
Well, that depends on what type of yard you have. Birch trees are fast-growing trees but are also one of the shortest-lived of the hardwoods.
In the early years, birch trees will shoot up fast, often 20 to 40 feet high. If you plan on planting them in your yard, make sure they are not too close to your house, or near power lines as they will have to get cut back.
Some people think that planting birch trees in clumps of three tends to prevent the trees from reaching their maximum height. The thinking is because the roots are shallow and widespread, with three birch trees in a small area, the roots have to compete amongst themselves and stunt their growth.
If your yard has an irrigation system or you have a lot of water pipes running through your yard, you’d be better off not planting birch trees in your yard. Birch trees, like willows, have strong and aggressive roots that will seek out water wherever. Metal or plastic pipes are no match for the roots of the birch, as they will infiltrate any tiny joint or crack.
If you have a small yard with lots of pipes running through the ground or a lot of overhead hazards then birch trees are not a great fit for you.
Alternatively, if you have a wide-open space free from overhead lines and in-ground plumbing, then the space would be great for a birch tree or more. Birch trees don’t grow huge, but they can get 30 to 40 feet tall, and need to be a minimum of 20 feet away from your house.
Birch Trees: Are They Able To Grow Just Anywhere?
While birch trees come from cooler climates and love wet, well-drained soil, with the proper care they can grow just about anywhere. The main hindrances to growing birch trees are heat and drought.
The USDA write up on the Paper Birch sums up where birch trees can grow best by stating that due to the trees overall genetic makeup, the paper birch grows can grow on almost any soil. Specifically, they state it can grow from “steep rocky outcrops of the mountains to flat muskegs of the boreal forest (Histosols)”.
Pretty wild stuff!
Birch trees can grow in wet areas, sandy or clay soils, areas of higher acidity, and love full sunlight as long as the temperature doesn’t get hot enough to bake the roots. Once the trees are established, they become more drought tolerant because of the shallow root system.
Precautions To Take Before Planting Birch Trees
Birch trees are beautiful in their own right and can make stunning additions to your property, but with planting any tree, some careful considerations need to be made before you plant.
Water Lines and Irrigation
As we stated earlier, birch roots will seek out water. Front yards usually have water supply lines and sewage lines underground. Irrigation lines for watering lawns and landscapes have become increasingly popular as well. If your yard has any of these pipes in your yard, it’s not advised to plant birch trees in this area.
The roots of birch trees can spread far and are determined to get into the never-ending supply of water. Make sure you check for water lines before planting birch trees.
Overhead Power Lines
You also shouldn’t plant birch trees near overhead power lines, streetlights, or other overhead hazards. Birch trees grow fast and tall; if they get into the lines above, the city or county will have to cut them back.
Sidewalks, Patios, or Other Paths
Because of the shallow, sprawling root systems of birch trees, unless you want your sidewalks, patios, or walkways to become an off-road hiking trail, don’t plant birch trees around these structures. The roots could crack the concrete, raise pavers, or otherwise disturb the smooth surface creating trip hazards, and unsightly cracks.
Wrapping It Up!
You may have noticed the peeling bark, and rough-edged oval leaves of birch trees along rivers and parks and wondered if you too could have something like that in your garden. Well now you know you can, and you know where you can plant these cold-loving deciduous trees where they will grow the best.
Some of the best areas to plant birch trees are:
- Areas with full sun
- Near creeks or riverbanks
- Near ponds
- In a landscape
- As a centerpiece to a garden
- Areas you have acidic soil
- Wet spots in the garden
- Low lying areas that gather water
- In sandy soil
Birch trees are prized for their distinctive looks, and captivating beauty through all the seasons, and are a very fast-growing tree. They grow great in nearly all types of soil conditions with the proper care, meaning you can enjoy that papery magnificence all year round in your yard and property.
If you have sandy soil, wet soil, normal soil, or acidic soil, a birch tree will love it as long as the leaves get plenty of sun, and the roots stay cool and moist, you too can grace your yard with the beauty of the birch tree.
Best of luck on your tree journey!
Lachowicz, H., Sajdak, M., Paschalis-Jakubowicz, P., Cichy, W., Wojtan, R., & Witczak, M. (2018). The influence of location, tree age and forest habitat type on basic fuel properties of the wood of the silver birch (Betula pendula Roth.) in Poland. BioEnergy Research, 11(3), 638-651.
Beck, P., Caudullo, G., de Rigo, D., & Tinner, W. (2016). Betula pendula, Betula pubescens and other birches in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats.
Perala DA, Alm AA. (1990). Reproductive ecology of birch: a review. Forest Ecology and Management 32: 1-38.