Yellow birch also called silver birch, golden birch, or swamp birch, ornamental and timber tree of the family Betulaceae, native to northeastern North America. Its vernacular names refer to the golden color of the tree's bark. The botanical name of yellow birch is Betula alleghaniensis. The name Betula lutea was used expansively for this tree but has now been replaced. The genus, Betula, is the Latin word for the birch tree. The species, alleghaniensis, refers to the Allegheny Mountains where the tree is widespread. In the 19th Century the species was classified as B. lutea, from the Latin lutum for ‘yellow’. The name ‘birch’ itself is derived from an old Teutonic word. Yellow Birch is one of the largest of the eastern hardwoods. It is very similar to Sweet Birch, but easily distinguished by its bark. Yellow birch is named for its characteristic shiny-golden, peeling bark. The plant prefers moist, well-drained soils of uplands and mountain ravines. It occurs on various soil types including glacial tills, outwash sands, lacustrine deposits, shallow loess, and residual soils derived from sandstone, limestone, igneous, and metamorphic rock.
Yellow Birch is an aromatic, medium-sized, slow growing, long lived, typically single stemmed, deciduous tree. The root system of yellow birch is generally shallow but variable. There is a well-developed extensive lateral root system; roots spread horizontally or may penetrate more than 5 feet (1.5 m). Open-grown yellow birch crowns are long and wide spreading. In more dense forest, crowns are short and irregularly rounded. The trunk usually divides into a few spreading branches but lateral shade produces a straight trunk that extends nearly to the top of the tree. In dense stands the trunk is free of branches for over half the height of the tree. Twigs are greenish-brown to reddish-brown, slender, with hair when young; smooth and brown later, with scattered light colored lenticels, and usually have small glands. Bark is normally smooth shiny reddish-brown when young that separates into papery curly strips and with age becomes tan to golden-yellowish or silver gray with expanded lenticels, fissures and scaly plates. Leaves are alternate, simple, elliptical, pointed tip, rounded to heart-shape base and a sharp double-toothed margin. The leaf is dark dull green above, light yellow green below and is hairy when young. The tree is monoecious, that is with separate male and female flowers on the same tree. Male flowers (staminate) occur in a cluster of 3 to 6 reddish-green catkins that appear on the twigs in the fall and then elongate up to 3 – 4 inches long, in the spring, near the ends of twigs, in hanging clusters taking on a yellow-purple color. Female flowers (pistillate) appear with the leaves and are reddish-green upright catkins, about 3/4 to 1-1/4 inches long at maturity, back of the tip on the same twigs. The seed is a winged samara with two wings which are shorter than the width of the seed which matures and gets released in autumn.
Table of Contents
60 - 80 feet
35 - 60 feet
4.0 - 8.0
Types of Yellow Birch
B. a. var. alleghaniensis - scales on the fruiting catkins 5–8 mm
B. a. var. macrolepis - scales on the fruiting catkins which measure 8–13 mm
B. a. var. fallax - dark brown bark that typically does not exfoliate into shreds or curly flakes at the surface, especially noticeable when the bark is wet
Growing Yellow Birch
How to Grow Yellow Birch From Seed
In addition to propagating, you may grow yellow birches from seeds.
Collect seeds from an existing tree.
Plant the seeds into a pot filled with compost or humus.
Sprinkle a thin layer of soil over the seeds and lightly water.
Cover the pot with a plastic bag to help retain moisture.
Place the pot outside in a covered area or garage.
Allow the seeds to germinate for six months.
After six months, move the pot to a sunny spot and maintain good moisture.
Plant the seedling outside once spring arrives.
Yellow Birch Care
Because of its vast canopy, choosing a suitable location is important when planting a yellow birch. You should ensure plenty of room and ample sunlight to accommodate its canopy. The soil around a yellow birch should be well-drained and water only in times of drought. Prune yellow birches lightly to maintain healthy growth. You don't need to fertilize yellow birches once they are established, but saplings may benefit from light fertilization.
The yellow birch is prone to insects and diseases common to all birches, such as birch borers and root rot. You can avoid issues with your tree if you provide it with adequate care throughout its life. You can propagate yellow birches using cuttings or seeds to create uniformity in planting.
Full sun is ideal, but if grown in a woodland landscape or near buildings, it can handle partial shade. Seedlings will not germinate in full shade.
The yellow birch will grow in soil with a wide-ranging pH, and while it tends to prefer slightly acidic soil, it tolerates alkaline soil well. The soil should be rich and well-drained. Sandy loam is ideal, but like other birch trees, the yellow birch is adaptable to varying soil conditions.
The yellow birch doesn't require watering beyond rainfall. In times of drought, however, it will benefit from a weekly deep watering at the roots.
Temperature and Humidity
Sandy loam is ideal, but like other birch trees, the yellow birch is adaptable to varying soil conditions. The yellow birch will grow in soil with a wide-ranging pH, and while it tends to prefer slightly acidic soil, it tolerates alkaline soil well. The soil should be rich and well-drained.
A newly-planted yellow birch benefits from light fertilization. You may use liquid, granular, or stake fertilizers around the base of the tree, either applying into 6 inch deep holes or applying 2 pounds or 2 pints per 100 feet of soil.
Pruning and Propagating Yellow Birch
Pruning is recommended to keep the tree in good health, but wait until after the growing season (late November through early December). The primary reason to wait for pruning is that the bronze birch borer is active in spring, may be drawn to fresh cuts on the tree, and can cause damage.
Propagating Yellow Birch
You can propagate the yellow birch using cuttings. Propagation helps create genetic uniformity in your trees and is an environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternative to buying new trees from a nursery. Here's how to propagate a yellow birch:
Use shears to cut 4 to 6 inch stem sections.
Fill a pot with a well-drained rooting medium. Ensure that the pot has good drainage.
Mist the rooting medium until water exits through the drainage holes in the pot.
Poke well-spaced holes in the rooting medium and plant the cuttings, pressing the soil around the base of the cuttings.
Prune any leaves off of the bottom of the cutting.
Mist the medium again, and do so consistently throughout the rooting period. You may cover the cuttings to help retain moisture.
Place the pot in indirect, bright light.
Using your fingers, transplant the cuttings once they are 1/2 inch long.
Pests and Plant Diseases
The yellow birch is susceptible to insect infestations, mainly birch leaf miners, birch borers, and birch skeletonizers. Still, the tree is relatively resistant to insects, though it's best to exercise caution and prune when its growth has gone dormant. Canker and dieback are the most common diseases to affect yellow birches. This fungus usually enters saplings through minor wounds and cracks, causing damage that weakens the stem and can lead to wind breakage.
Common Problems With Yellow Birch
Yellow birches can be affected by problems common to all birch trees. However, with attentive care, you can get ahead of issues that may damage the structural integrity of your birch and prevent the further spread of disease to surrounding trees.
Pruning wounds or root rot can lead to the discoloration of yellow birches. The discoloration can be seen in browned leaves or dark brown branches, limbs, and trunks. Under the discolored bark, you can sometimes see white fungus growth. Prune carefully to avoid wounds on your tree. While root rot is hard to prevent, remove the affected tree before the disease spreads to surrounding birches.
Like discoloration, decay is usually associated with wounds on a yellow birch. This is most common in wounds older than 20 years old, and frost cracks older than 10 years old. Pay careful attention to your tree's health to prevent longstanding injuries, and prune dead branches as necessary. Healthy trees can usually heal wounds on their own.
Benefits of Yellow Birch
Yellow birch is little used medicinally, though a decoction of the bark has been used by the native North American Indians as a blood purifier, acting to cleanse the body by its emetic and cathartic properties.
Bark is a source of ‘Oil of Wintergreen’. This does have medicinal properties, though it is mainly used as a flavoring in medicines.
Tea of the twigs and bark aids in eradication of the mouth of canker sores.
An infusion made from the leaves of the Birch has been used as a diuretic and cleansing agent to the urinary tract.
It has been used to treat gout, rheumatism and mild arthritic pain.
Decoction of the leaves has occasionally been used to prevent baldness, as is the fresh juice.
Decoction is also used as a sleeping aid before bed for insomnia.
The tea can also be used as a wash for skin complaints.
If the skin problems are severe or chronic, a decoction of the bark can be used as a wash or added to the bath.
Oil extracted from the buds or the bark can be used externally for acne, rheumatism and gout.
Tea prepared from twigs and bark can be helpful for boils and sores when taken internally as well as used as a wash.
Essential oil of Birch can ease sore muscles or joint pain if applied externally.
Inner bark is cooked or dried and ground into a powder and used with cereals in making bread.
Inner bark is generally only seen as a famine food, used when other forms of starch are not available or are in short supply.
Sap is consumed raw or cooked.
Pleasant drink, it can also be concentrated into syrup or fermented into a beer.
Tea is made from the twigs, inner bark and leaves.
Twigs and leaves have the flavor of wintergreen and can be used as condiments.
Sap of yellow birch can be tapped for use as edible syrup.
Bark is waterproof and has been used by native peoples as the outer skin of canoes, as roofing material on dwellings and to make containers such as buckets, baskets and dishes.
Wood is close-grained, very strong, hard, and heavy. The wood is too dense to float; it is used for furniture, cabinetry, charcoal, pulp, interior finish, veneer, tool handles, boxes, woodenware, and interior doors.
Wood is also often used as a fuel.
Yellow birch is one of the principal hardwoods used in the distillation of wood alcohol, acetate of lime, charcoal, tar, and oils.
It also is a good edge tree for naturalized areas.
Yellow birch chips can be used to produce ethanol and other products.
Bark can be used to build dwellings, lodges, canoes, storage containers, sap dishes, rice baskets, buckets, trays and dishes and place on coffins when burying the dead.