Here’s How Far Birch Tree Roots Spread (Plus Removal Tips)

Tree roots in a forest

You may recognize a birch tree from its characteristic peeling white and red bark when you’re out for a walk. Just how far do birch tree roots actually spread?

Birch tree roots spread as far as the tree grows wide and create an intensive mat of roots 4-8 inches thick below the soil surface and spread 20-40 feet as they mature, leading to issues with underground structures. In general, a birch tree’s root system doubles in size during its first year alone.

Although birch trees get a bad rep for their root systems, they are not as bad as they are made out to be! We are here to help you avoid any issues with your birch tree, established or newly planted. Keep reading for birch tree tips and to find out more about how far birch tree roots spread!

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Just How Large Are Birch Tree Root Systems?

Birch trees have extremely large root systems. They form a 4-8 inch thick mat of far spreading roots directly underneath the soil to catch all the water possible.

Now, I know we said that before but thats 4-8 inches THICK. That’s wild!

They also extend to the width of the tree canopy. The tree canopy or crown is the term used to describe the width of the top of the tree and the circumference of how far the branches reach. 

Underneath the surface, the thick root mat extends to the drip line of the tree canopy. The drip line or drip zone is the area directly under the outer edge of the tree canopy, where excess water runs off the branches and leaves and falls to the ground. A likely place to expect water-loving roots to reach!

Did you know the drip zone area is where the roots absorb the most water? The drip line or drip zone area is usually seen as a ring in the soil around the plant where runoff accumulates and the roots soak up. 

According to the University of Berkeley, the drip line or ring area found in the soil is also called the Critical Root Zone (CRZ) or the Root Protection Zone (RPZ). This area is home to 85% of a tree’s roots, which draw in nutrients and water to the rest of the roots and tree.

The crowns of birch trees can be anywhere from 20-40 feet wide, and even wider in some cases! This means there is an intensely woven network of roots just as wide hiding beneath the surface! So yes, birch tree roots spread quite far.

Now, let’s dive deep into the nitty-gritty of where birch tree roots grow the most.

What Soil Do Birch Tree Roots Grow In?

September autumn birch grove

We have already hinted that birch tree roots spread pretty far in the above section, but lets get into more of the nitty gritty here.

Although we mentioned above birch tree roots can double in size within the first year of growth, you do not have to worry about a birch tree taking over your home.

Generally, you find birch trees growing near water sources, along rivers, in shade, or wooded areas. Can you guess why? They love water! 

Birch trees are moisture-loving trees that grow in a highly organic and loamy soil. Loamy soil is fertile and slow draining, consisting of sand, silt, and clay, so it holds moisture for a much longer time than strictly sandy soil. So if you have ever been to upstate New York, where the soil consists of clay, sand, and silt, chances are you have seen these trees!

Do Birch Tree Roots Cause Problems?

Now that we have covered just how far birch tree roots spread, let’s get into the question that everyone wants to know the answer to. Do birch tree roots cause problems?

Birch tree roots can cause problems. Will they? Not always, and probably not likely. Can they? Yes, they can.

For instance, if you have a birch tree planted near underground electrical wiring, plumbing, or even a drain field for your septic, far spreading birch tree roots can potentially cause issues for all of them.

Preventing this can be as simple as planting a birch tree far enough away from your home. Planting a birch tree at least 20 feet from your home can be sufficient for some varieties, but if you are still worried, you can plant them even further from your home.

If tree roots invade your home, it is likely they are in search of water or nutrients. So initially, watering and fertilizing your tree adequately can help prevent this too.

What Are Surface Roots For Birch Trees?

Beautiful summer landscape with the forest and the sun

If you have any large birch trees near you, you may have surface roots. This happens when roots grow through the top layer of soil and are exposed at the surface, causing tripping hazards, issues in foundations of driveways, etc. 

If surface roots become an issue, it is best to contact a tree professional to determine the best course of action for your tree. Remember that the far spreading roots of your birch tree will appear 4-8 inches below the surface in a thick mesh.

So, it’s not just a few roots spreading out BUT it’s quite a bit that will overtake the soil underneath.

A quick tip. If you have a birch tree that you’re trying to nourish, taking care of your trees means cutting back any dead, or dying limbs or branches. We like to put a plug in for one of our favorite tree trimming pole saws, Fiskars Chain Drive 7–16 Foot Extendable Pole Saw & Pruner (394631-1001).

This pole saw extends from 7 feet all the way to 16 feet tall, making it a breeze to cut high and out-of-reach branches! It cuts branches with ease, and you will not regret adding it to your tool shed!

Why You May Need To Remove Birch Tree Roots

While you could remove birch tree roots, it might be best to leave them or contact tree professionals. 

Like we mentioned before, birch tree roots can cause issues with wiring, plumbing and your septic. It’s important to know just how deep those systems are in your yard so you can avoid having to remove far spreading birch tree roots if not necessary. If deeper than a foot, you may not have to worry about any wiring, plumbing or septic systems as the birch tree roots won’t reach them or intersect.

Again however, contact a local professional who has experience in removing birch tree roots.

If you decide to take matters into your own hands and cut or remove birch tree roots, you might do significant damage to your tree and even cause dieback. Significant damage could include disease or insect infestation, causing more issues than when you started.

If you’ve already cut down your birch tree and are trying to eliminate the birch tree roots from the soil, you can check out one of our popular methods of using vinegar to eliminate tree roots.

Most Common Birch Trees That Have Far Spreading Roots

So we’re talking about birch trees, but what are some common birch trees that you might have seen or know of that also have potentially invasive, far spreading birch tree roots? Let’s jump into a few here!

Here are several common birch tree species that have far spreading, shallow roots:

  • Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis
  • River Birch, Betula nigra
  • Silver Birch, Betula pendula
  • Cherry Birch, Betula lenta
  • Red or Water Birch, Betula occidentalis
  • Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera

Before we get into this, not all birch trees have white bark. Only a few actually do! You can read our guide on which birch trees have white bark here.

Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis

The yellow birch is one of the largest hardwood trees in North America. It is easy to recognize by its yellow leaves and insane height!

The yellow birch grows 60-75 feet tall and is found in sunny and lightly shaded areas. If you live in hardiness zones 3-7, you have probably seen this tree!

River Birch, Betula nigra

The river birch is one of my favorite trees! If you live in a swampy area or near rivers, you have probably seen this tree growing naturally, with its unmistakable dark red peeling bark. It grows in hardiness zones 4-9 to a height of 40-70 feet. 

Silver Birch, Betula pendula

The silver birch grows in hardiness zones 2-6 and is known for its white peeling bark. Its leaves turn a bright yellow in the fall, and its branches grow in a beautiful pattern. This pattern is the reason for the tree’s nickname, the weeping birch.

Cherry Birch, Betula lenta

The cherry birch, also known as black birch or sweet birch, grows best in hardiness zones 3-7 and is native to Eastern North America. Its bark is very similar to a cherry tree, with lenticels along the entire bark. Unlike other birches, the cherry birch has a smooth bark appearance.

Red or Water Birch, Betula occidentalis

The red birch is commonly found in western North America at a variety of elevations, anywhere from 300-10,000 feet, mainly found in mountainous regions. It has striking dark brown and red bark with white lenticels. It is a much smaller birch tree and can take the form of a tree or a shrub, growing around 30 feet high. 

Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera

The paper birch is one of the most known birch trees there is, because of its striking bark. You can find the paper birch in hardiness zones 2-7. Not only does the paper birch have incredibly smooth bright white bark that peels off like sheets of paper, but the leaves also turn a bright yellow color in the fall.

Some people will strip the bark off of living paper birch trees for various purposes. However, you should not do this, and to learn more on the topic, check out 5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Peel Off Birch Tree Bark.

Most Common Areas Where Birch Trees Grow

As we mentioned above, birch trees love moist, wet areas with highly organic soil. Birch trees will grow best in USDA zones 2 to 7, although they will grow in USDA zones 8 to 9, they won’t live as long.

Birch trees prefer acidic, loamy, wet soil. They grow well in both sandy soil and clay soil. Birch trees can grow anywhere from 1-2 feet per year, and a mature birch tree can reach a height of 50-70 feet!

To learn more about birch trees and how they grow, check out our article: 4 Reasons Why Birch Trees Can’t Grow In The Shade.

Planst These Trees Instead To Avoid Far Spreading Birch Roots

So, if you are trying to steer clear of birch trees, there are a few different things you can plant instead.

If you are worried about care and watering, and potentially far spreading roots, then we have a few alternatives to birch trees for your yard. Keep in mind these are just a few suggestions, and there are many more out there!

  • Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum
  • Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana
  • American Redbud, Cercis canadensis
  • Weeping Cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’
  • Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia
  • Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum

There are so many types of Japanese maples ranging in all sizes, colors, and shapes, most of which grow in hardiness zones 5-8.

A few common varieties of Japanese maple include: 

Bloodgood

This tree grows to be 15-20 feet tall and thrives in full sun to partial shade. In the summer, it sports dark red and purple leaves.

Coral Bark

The coral bark maple is great for large landscapes, growing to a height of 20-25 feet tall. It has dark red bark and golden leaves that will impress you year-round!

Autumn Moon

This Japanese maple will grow well in hardiness zones 4-8. It grows to a height of 6-10 feet tall, with gorgeous yellow and orange leaves in the spring.

Red Dragon

The red dragon grows to a height of 6-8 feet tall and does best in full sun to partial shade. It is one of the smaller varieties of Japanese maple and is perfect for any small space. The red dragon grows best in hardiness zones 5-8.

Crimson Queen

The crimson queen grows to a height of 8-10 feet tall and does best in full sun to partial shade. This Japanese maple grows in a weeping shape and has lace, deep cut leaves.

Depending on the area where you are planting, you may choose a certain size of Japanese maple tree or one based on the look, foliage, color, and shape!

Japanese maples come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so you are bound to find one to fit in your landscape. 

Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana

If you have not seen a saucer magnolia before, it will probably have you in awe when they bloom in early spring. Their blooms resemble large dark pink and cream colored teacups.

The saucer magnolia grows well in hardiness zones 4-9 to a height of 20-30 feet tall and 25 feet wide, making this a great alternative to plant in place of a birch!

Like the other trees we have mentioned, this magnolia grows best in well-draining soils, especially in acidic, loamy, and sandy soils. This tree grows best in full sun, with at least six hours of direct sunlight per day.

The saucer magnolia grows in a beautiful round shape and grows well in areas that have cold winters. It has a relatively good pollution tolerance, which is why you’d see them in Central Park in New York City. 

American Redbud, Cercis canadensis

When you are trying to decide if you want to plant a birch tree in your yard, the American redbud might be a great alternative if the birch tree is not sitting at the top of your list. 

The American redbud has heart-shaped leaves and vibrant purple-pink blooms in early spring. Redbuds grow anywhere from 20-30 feet tall and 30 feet wide, just slightly smaller than some birch trees. 

They grow well in hardiness zones 4-9 and grow best in full sun to partial shade. Redbuds like well-draining soils and grow well in windy areas. Their vibrant blooms turn into dark purple leaves in late spring, and then a dark green in early summer. 

If you decide to plant an American redbud in your yard, you will not be sorry! They will provide you with interest year-round.

Weeping Cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’

Detail of a higan cherry tree in full blossom in spring, frankfurt, germany

The weeping cherry is a true specimen tree, commonly referred to as a Higan cherry! It grows best in full sun and hardiness zones 5-8. Although it is a cherry tree, it is purely ornamental, grown for its gorgeous white and pink blooms.

If an ornamental cherry tree interests you, check out our article, 8 Types Of Mock Cherry Trees And Where They Grow, to learn more about these types of trees.

The weeping cherry prefers well-draining soil and tolerates cold weather well. There are tons of them in Long Island.

The relatively small size of the weeping cherry makes it a perfect fit for your yard, especially if you are worried about the size of a birch tree!

Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica

The crape myrtle is an incredible tree that will keep you interested through all four seasons. If the flowers in the summer do not impress you, the bark will be a showstopper in the winter!

Crape myrtles grow well in hardiness zones 6-9 and grow to a height of 15-25 feet tall and anywhere between 6-15 feet wide. Although crape myrtles are full sun, they can tolerate partial shade, meaning they get at least six hours of direct sun per day. 

Because of their size, the crape myrtle is perfect for small or large spaces and does well in hot and humid climates, but surprisingly they grow well on Long Island!

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

The flowering dogwood is a seriously incredible tree! It prefers well-draining soil and can grow in full sun to partial shade. The flowering dogwood is most notable for its beautiful pink and white flowers that first emerge in the spring.

This dogwood grows anywhere from 15-30 feet tall and wide and grows well in Hardiness Zones 5-9.

The flowering dogwood is beautiful in all seasons and even bears bright red berries in the fall and winter. With 1-2 feet of growth per year, the flowering dogwood might be perfect for your yard!

If you want to learn more about some great birch tree alternatives for your landscape, check out our article, 12 Fastest Growing Shade Trees For Small Yards!

That’s A Wrap!

Hopefully, now you feel more comfortable about birch trees and what you can do if a birch tree is not exactly what you had in mind. 

While birch tree roots can be invasive, it is not likely they will take over your home. Therefore they are technically not invasive but just in case, we wanted you to feel comfortable in knowing what to do if a birch tree causes any issues. 

We recommend not removing any birch tree roots yourself, as it could cause more harm than good to your tree, so our recommendation would be to contact tree professionals!

While a birch tree can be a beautiful addition to your yard (if you do not have one already), we understand it is daunting to plant a tree with a huge, thick root spread.

To recap, here are a few alternatives to birch trees that you can plant in your yard if you’re looking for landscaping ideas:

  • Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum
  • Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana
  • American Redbud, Cercis canadensis
  • Weeping Cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Pendula’
  • Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia
  • Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

Thanks for learning and reading about birch trees with us! Birch trees are not as daunting as they seem, but if you are unsure of what to do if you have a tree issue, contact a tree or landscaping professional!

References:

Kupper, Priit, et al. “Impact of high daytime air humidity on nutrient uptake and night-time water flux in silver birch, a boreal forest tree species.” Regional Environmental Change 17.7 (2017): 2149-2157.

Ranney, T. G., R. E. Bir, and W. A. Skroch. “Comparative drought resistance among six species of birch (Betula): influence of mild water stress on water relations and leaf gas exchange.” Tree Physiology 8.4 (1991): 351-360.

Uri, Veiko, et al. “Biomass production, foliar and root characteristics and nutrient accumulation in young silver birch (Betula pendula Roth.) stand growing on abandoned agricultural land.” European Journal of Forest Research 126.4 (2007): 495-506.

Vaitkutė, D., Baltrėnaitė, E., Booth, C. A., & Fullen, M. A. (2010). Does sewage sludge amendment to soil enhance the development of Silver birch and Scots pine?. Hungarian Geographical Bulletin, 59(4), 393-410.

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