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Paper Birch Betula papyrifera


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Paper Birch
credit: daryl_mitchell/CCSA

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Alternate name: White Birch

Family: Betulaceae, Birch view all from this family

Description It is a medium-sized deciduous tree reaching 60 feet tall (18m) (exceptionally to 130 feet) (40m) with a trunk up to 32 inches diameter (0,8m). The bark is white, commonly brightly so, flaking in fine horizontal strips, and often with small black marks and scars. In individuals younger than five years, the bark appears brown with white lenticels, making the tree much harder to distinguish from other trees. The leaves are alternate, ovate, 1-5 in. long and 2-4 in. broad, with a doubly serrate margin. The leaf buds are conical and small. They are green-colored with brown edges. The flowers are wind-pollinated catkins 1.5 in. long growing from the tips of twigs. The fruit matures in the fall. The mature fruit is composed of numerous tiny winged seeds packed between the catkin bracts. They drop between September and spring.

Betula papyrifera has a wide range. It is found in interior (var. humilus) and south-central (var. kenaica) Alaska and in all provinces and territories of Canada, except Nunavut, as well as the northern continental United States, south to Pennsylvania and Washington, with small isolated populations further south in mountains to North Carolina, New Mexico, and Colorado. The most southerly stand in the Western United States is located in Lost Gulch in the City of Boulder Mountain Parks, an isolated Pleistocene relict that most likely reflects the southern reach of boreal vegetation into the area during the last Ice Ages.

Betula papyrifera is a pioneer species; for example, it is frequently an early invader after fire in Black Spruce Boreal forests. B. papyrifera requires high nutrients and sun exposure. The bark is highly weather-resistant. Often, the wood of a downed paper birch will rot away leaving the hollow bark intact. Birch bark is a winter staple food for moose. The nutritional quality is poor, but is important to wintering moose because of its sheer abundance. Although white-tailed deer consider Birch a "secondary-choice food", it is an important dietary component. In Minnesota, white-tailed deer eat considerable amounts of paper birch leaves in the fall. Snowshoe hares browse paper birch seedlings.

The species is considered vulnerable in Indiana, imperiled in Illinois, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, and critically imperiled in Colorado and Tennessee. It is the Provincial tree of Saskatchewan and the State tree of New Hampshire.

Habitat Mountains, Cities, suburbs & towns, Scrub, shrub & brushlands.

Range Great Lakes, Western Canada, Plains, Mid-Atlantic, Eastern Canada, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, New England, Northwest, Alaska.

Comments Paper birch is sensitive to disease and insects, especially the bronze birch borer, under unfavorable growing conditions. The species requires cool summers where average July temperatures are below 70 degrees. Do not prune until summer when the sap has stopped flowing. More tolerant of high pH than river birch. Short-lived. The species white bark achieves maximum ornamental value with a dark background of pine, spruce and fir.

Exposure Preference Sun.

Native Distribution Newfoundland. & Labrador to Alaska, s. to New Jersey, Virginia mts., n.e. Indiana, Wyoming & n.e. Oregon

Site Preference Low, wet areas; moist hillsides; stream banks

Soil Preference Moist, fertile, cool soils.

Wildlife Value Songbirds, ground birds and mammals use this species.