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Gray Birch Betula populifolia


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Gray Birch, leaves
credit: Richtid/CCSA

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Family: Betulaceae, Birch view all from this family

Description A deciduous tree native to North America, it ranges from southeastern Ontario east to Nova Scotia, and south to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with disjunct populations in Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. It prefers poor, dry upland soils, but is also found in moist mixed woodlands. Short-lived, it is a common pioneer species on abandoned fields and burned areas.

Gray birch grows quickly to 7 to 9 m tall and 0.3 m trunk diameter, with an irregular open crown of slender branches. The tree often has multiple trunks branching off of an old stump. The leaves are 5-7.5 cm long by 4-6 cm wide, alternately arranged, ovate, and tapering to an elongated tip. They are dark green and glabrous above and paler below, with a coarsely serrated margin. The bark is chalky to grayish white with black triangular patches where branch meets trunk. It is smooth and thin but does not readily exfoliate. The flowers are wind-pollinated catkins 5-8 cm long, the male catkins pendulous and the female catkins erect. The fruit, maturing in autumn, is composed of many tiny winged seeds packed between the catkin bracts.

Like other North American birches, gray birch is highly resistant to the Bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius). The leaves of the Gray Birch serve as food for various Lepidoptera. The wood is medium hard and is used for high grade plywood, furniture, drum shells, spools and firewood.

Habitat Canyons & valleys, Fields, Mountains.

Range Southeast, Eastern Canada, Mid-Atlantic, New England, Great Lakes.

Comments Very short-lived, weak tree. Do not prune until summer when the sap has stopped flowing. Does not tolerate high pH or competition from other trees.

Exposure Preference Sun.

Native Distribution Maritime provinces to New Jersey & Virginia, scattered w. to n.e. Illinois

Site Preference Wet to dry woods; lake margins; old fields

Soil Preference Wet to dry, poor soils

Wildlife Value Songbirds, ground birds and mammals