While there aren’t as many different types of birch trees as there are different species of oak or willow tree species, there are still around 60 species of birch growing in the cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
I’ll describe some of them here.
Birch trees are members of the Betula genus and part of the Betulaceae family, a family related to the Fagaceae family of beech, oak, and chestnut, etc. They’re generally shorter-lived than some other broadleaved trees, with 100 years or even less being a respectable lifespan, but some birch trees can live to 150 or more under the right conditions (or even longer, as mentioned below).
A pioneer species, birch trees are deciduous and were among the first to recolonize the land after the last ice age ended and its enormous glaciers retreated. They tend to grow in most soil types but often prefer conditions on the moister side. Birch trees are all monoecious, which means that they have distinct male and female flowers present together on the same tree.
In ancient Celtic mythology, birch (or Beithe) symbolized birth and new beginnings. In Norse and Germanic traditions, it was associated with the goddess Freya, and the famous 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper linked it to Venus. Birch in Europe is a tree of femininity, fertility, life, and growth.
It’s also sacred to the Native American peoples and features significantly in their medicine and folklore.
11 Beautiful Types of Birch Trees
I’ll now list some of the more common or more interesting types of birch tree. Most birches have shallow root systems and may be prone to drying out in very dry conditions, so bear that in mind if you’re considering planting one in your garden or yard.
It’s even possible to grow birch trees in containers if you choose the correct variety. I’ll mention two here that, while normally full-sized, are also available as Fastigiata varieties; these grow in a columnar shape and are generally much smaller, in height and spread, than normal birch trees.
It is important to note, by the way, that common names for birch trees may refer to more than one species due to regional variations in naming. So if you’re every looking for a particular type of birch tree, always go by the scientific name rather than just the common name. Otherwise, you might get a surprise!
1. Silver Birch
Possibly the most well-known species of birth tree, the silver birch (Betula pendula) is a beautiful, graceful tree with white bark that can appear to have a silver sheen. It can reach 30 meters (98 feet) in height, and its rich green leaves are triangular in shape.
The silver birch tree sheds its delicate, papery bark in layers, and the bark at the base of the tree becomes black and tough as the tree matures. The silver birch has a wide range of habitats from Spain to Lapland and is a vital tree for wildlife, supporting more than 300 species of insect and feeding / housing a wide variety of birds.
The silver birch hybridizes easily with our next tree, the downy birch, and is one of the birches available for container growing in a special form.
2. Downy Birch
Downy birch (Betula pubescens) has the most northerly range of all broadleaved tree species. Its overall range is similar to that of the silver birch, but with a more northern and western focus. It also is happier in much damper soils than the silver birch.
Growing to the same height of 30 meters (90 feet), the downy birch has a more upright growth habit than the silver birch. Its leaves, while still triangular, are more rounded where they attach to their stalks (which are, just in the case of the downy birch, softly hairy, i.e., downy).
The bark of the downy birch is more brown than that of the silver birch, and it doesn’t have the same paper-like characteristics.
3. Himalayan Birch
Another of those that can be grown in containers if of the right type, the Himalayan birch (Betula utillis) can grow to 20 meters (65 feet) tall but is often found as much smaller cultivars. Its dark green leaves are oval in shape and gently toothed like birch leaves in general.
The bark of the Himalayan birch is a wonderful, soft white that almost seems to shimmer, and it peels and renews every year. The tree tends to take on a pyramidal shape overall. It is, as you might expect, native to the Himalayas.
4. River Birch
Native to the swamps and flood plains of the eastern United States, the river birch (Betula nigra) can grow further north than its original habitat would suggest. It needs a lot of moisture and doesn’t mind heavy soil, and the river birch can grow to between 18 and 24 meters (60-80 feet) in height.
A shaggier tree than the other birches I’ve mentioned so far, the river birch gets it name from the black color that its bark takes on when the tree is mature. Its leaves are shiny and medium-green in color but may have darker veining amidst the lighter shade. They’re more toothy than the leaves of the Himalayan birch and have been described as diamond-shaped.
5. Chinese Red / White / Silver Birch
See what I mean about the names? The Chinese red birch, or Betula albosinensis, is variously referred to as the Chinese white birch or the Chinese silver birch and is native to western China. Reaching a potential height of 20 meters (65 feet), its bark is perhaps its most unusual feature.
A beautiful, glowing copper color with shades of purple, pink, and rose, the bark of the Chinese silver birch peels away delicately to show its honey- or maroon-colored reverse. A stunning tree, its leaves have a pale green color, and their shape ranges from oval to lanceolate (lance-shaped).
6. Water Birch
Scientifically known as Betula occidentalis, which actually means western birch, the water birch is native to the western coastal regions of North America. It may also be called red birch, mountain birch, or black birch, and is known as a shrubby tree.
Unlike the bark of many other birches, that of the water birch doesn’t peel. It’s dark red in color, and complements the tree’s shiny, bright green leaves beautifully. Often found in riparian zones, the water birch can grow to 10 meters (32 feet) tall as a tree or around 6 meters (20 feet) tall as a shrub.
7. Erman’s Birch
With a lovely, cream-colored, peeling bark, Erman’s birch (Betula ermanii) is also known as the gold birch. As with many birches, it can be multi-stemmed rather than having one single trunk, but when in its natural habit and single-stemmed, the Erman’s birch may grow to 30 meters (98 feet) in height.
Native to northeast Asia, its rich-to-dark green leaves are oval to triangular, and taper to a point (acuminate). The bark of the Erman’s birch is yellow-white to pink-white, and can peel off in strips. Unlike some of the birches that are pyramidal in shape, the Erman’s birch has a round and partially open crown.
8. Monarch Birch
Native to central and northern Japan, the monarch birch or Maximowicz’s birch (Betula maximowicziana) may grow to between 23 and 30 meters (80-100 feet) in its natural habitat. Valued in Japan as a timber tree, the monarch birch has oval to heart-shaped leaves in a bright green color. Its bark is grey to orange-grey maturing to a pale greyish-white, and it flakes off in papery strips.
Like most birches, the monarch birch’s leaves change in autumn to a yellow color, but with this species, the foliage color is said to be particularly attractive. Unlikes most birches, the monarch birch seems to be resistant to attacks by bronze birch borer, a beetle which can kill birch trees.
9. Japanese Cherry Birch (or Japanese Grey Birch)
The Japanese cherry / grey birch has had a lot of names. Currently known scientifically as Betula grossa, it’s also been called Betula carpinifolia, Betula solennis, and Betula ulmifolia, which can get a bit confusing. Another birch that can be a tree or a large shrub, the Japanese cherry birch has bark that’s a lovely, warm, reddish-grey in color when the tree is younger and which becomes dark grey when the tree matures.
Its dark green leaves are longer than those of some other birch species, and its stems have a wonderful, aromatic scent of wintergreen. The Japanese cherry birch is native to Japan, as you might have guessed, and can grow to 18 meters (60 feet) in height in its natural habitat. It’s a lovely tree that’s quite rare in cultivation and outside of Japan.
10. Cherry Birch
Not to be confused with the Japanese cherry birch, the (American) cherry birch (Betula lenta) is native to eastern North America. It grows to around 15 meters (50 feet) in height and is remarkably long-lived for a birch: up to 360 years in one confirmed case.
It has a similar, refreshing wintergreen fragrance to that of the Japanese cherry birch, and its leaves are a wonderful yellow-green in color turning to a vibrant gold in autumn. The bark of the cherry birch (alternatively called the black birch or sweet birch) is a dark, reddish-brown in color and resembles that of a cherry tree, especially when the tree is older and the bark develops its characteristic, black, vertical cracks.
11. Dwarf Birch
The dwarf birch (Betula nana) is native to the northern polar regions. It grows as a small shrub, and in ideal conditions, it could reach 1 meter (3 feet) in height. Often though, it only grows to about 30cm (12 inches) tall due to being overgrazed by local herbivores.
Its small, rounded leaves are toothed like birch leaves in general. They’re dark green on the tops with paler undersides. Its small branches, like those of downy birch, are covered in fine, soft hairs. It is a threatened species facing possible extinction so is often planted in conservation areas.
There are other species of birch also called dwarf birch, so don’t be surprised if you come across one that doesn’t quite match the above description!
Uses of Birch Wood
Birch wood, being hardwood, makes great firewood and is also used in a wide variety of woodworking projects. Although the trees never get large enough for their wood to be used in serious buildings projects, it’s much-loved by craftsmen and woodworkers who use it to make musical instruments, toys, furniture, and a wonderful variety of other objects.
Sometimes used as a substitute for maple, birch wood can also be used to make a strong but flexible plywood; many skateboards are made from birch wood. And the Spruce Goose, the largest wooden airplane ever to have been built, was made not of spruce but of almost completely birch.
Uses of Birch Trees Beyond Their Wood
Birch wood is only one part of a birch tree, and there are many uses for the trees which don’t require them to be cut down or their branches removed. Although, as an aside, it is of course possible to make wooden crafts from windfall wood, something I highly recommend. (Windfall wood is wood that has fallen naturally from the tree, perhaps as a result of strong winds.)
Birch is well-known in Europe for its properties of cleansing and purification. It’s common in the late winter and early spring to drink birch sap (sustainably and very carefully harvested by an expert, as birch trees can “bleed” profusely) or a juice made from fresh birch leaves as a tonic to help the body recover from winter and prepare for the new year.
Birch bark is also renowned for its medicinal properties, and in general, the birch tree is known for being anti-inflammatory, diuretic, cytotoxic to certain cancer cells, anti-rheumatic, astringent, antiseptic, and diaphoretic. It’s also antiviral.
What’s more, a common fungus that grows on birch trees, the birch polypore or Piptoporus betulinus, is also anti-inflammatory, anti-parasitic, anti-viral, anti-tumour, styptic (stops bleeding through astringency / the contraction of tissue), and anti-bacterial. Nature is truly incredible.
That said though, you should never, ever harvest any fungi unless you’re 100% sure you know what you’re doing — that you can absolutely identify which fungus is which — and are certain that you’re harvesting sustainably. Much the same applies to birch bark: while it does peel off the trees relatively easily, taking too much or taking it at the wrong time could injure or even kill the tree.
Only buy sustainably harvested birch bark, or any plant material for that matter, or collect what you find on the ground.
Birch bark was one of the first “papers” used for writing. Discovered medieval manuscripts show that birch bark was used for a wide variety of applications, from church prayer texts and business documents to the work of a 13th-century Russian schoolboy.
At Star Carr, a Mesolithic archaeological dig site near Scarborough in England, archaeologists discovered the use of birch bark tar. The tar itself has many uses, and one of those is “hafting” flint weapons: securing them onto / into the wooden shaft or handle — the haft — that allows their use. They also found numerous birch bark rolls. Sometimes displaying evidence of charring, birch bark rolls have been used as firelighters or torches but also as floats for fishing nets.
Birch bark has been found by scientists and researchers at Star Carr and elsewhere to have been used for shelter, food storage, paper, medicine, adhesive, in hunting and fishing, as flooring mats, to make canoes … the list goes on and on and only proves even further how vital trees have been to our evolution and how important they are to our survival.
If only we understood how important we are to theirs!
The Beauty of Birch
Birch trees, like all trees, offer our planet so much. Invaluable for wildlife for the food and habitats they provide, vital for human evolution, for medicine, building materials, and items related to every day life, the various birch species are not only beautiful, but immensely useful.
If you can plant one (or more) of these wonders on your land, find our from your local arborist, forestry department, or woodland conservation charity which species is right for your climate, location, and soil type.
With every tree you plant (ideally every native tree), you’re contributing to the incredible biodiversity of our amazing planet. You’re giving nature a home and making our world healthier and more beautiful. What a perfect way to spend an afternoon!
Featured image by Saaby on Flickr
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Kira Nash lives with her family in the sunny French countryside amidst bees and swallows. A writer, editor, and artist by trade, she also teaches creative meditation. She’s passionate about nature and ecology and tries to live as green a life as possible. In her spare time, she surfs, reads, and plays with her cats, although not usually all at once. She loves tea a little too much.