- Betula, from the Latin for birch
- alleghaniensis, from the Latin, "of the Alleghanies"
- Common name from the color of the bark
- Other common names include Swamp Birch, Silver Birch, Gray Birch,
merisier, bouleau jaune
- Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
- Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
- Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
- Subclass Hamamelididae
- Order Fagales
- Family Betulaceae, the Birches
- Genus Betula, the Birches
- Taxonomic Serial Number: 19481
- Also known as Betula lutea
- Known to hybridize with both our other native North Country birches.
- Betula alleghaniensis × Betula
papyrifera is seldom reported, but may actually be more
common than realized in the northeastern states. In most features
intermediate between the parents.
- Betula alleghaniensis × Betula
pumila, known as Betula × purpusii
is rather common wherever the parent species occur together. The
large shrubby plants show strikingly intermediate leaf characteristics.
- A native, deciduous tree to 75' in height.
- Trunk straight
- 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 with odor and taste of wintergreen when
crushed, glabrous to sparsely pubescent, usually covered with small
- Bark somewhat lustrous, separating in thin layers
which exfoliate and result in a finely shaggy appearance. On old
trunks, deeply grooved and about ½" thick. Bark of young
trunks and branches dark reddish brown, in maturity tan, yellowish,
or grayish, lustrous, smooth, irregularly exfoliating, or sometimes
darkening and remaining close; lenticels dark, horizontally expanded.
- Roots generally shallow but variable. There is a
well-developed extensive lateral root system; roots spread horizontally
or may penetrate more than 5'.
- Flowers monoecious
- Fruit a winged nutlet 0.13- to 0.14-inch (3.2-3.5-mm)
long (not including the wings).Samaras with wings narrower than body,
broadest near summit, not or only slightly extended beyond body apically.
- Slow growing, with an average lifespan of approximately 150 years,
but can live over 300 years.
- Eastern Minnesota to the Gaspé, south to northeastern Iowa,
northern Illinois, northern Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey;
south through the Appalachians to northern Alabama and Georgia.
- The largest concentrations are found in Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick,
Maine, upper Michigan, and New York, with about 50% of the growing volume
in Quebec. At the northwestern limit of its range in our area.
- Soils: occurs on 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. The best growth
occurs on well-drained fertile loams and moderately well-drained sandy
loams. Even though growth is poor, yellow birch is often abundant where
drainage is restricted. Yellow birch occurs on muck soils with pH 7.5
to 8.0. Birches (Betula spp.) are sensitive to soil phosphorus.
- Periodic droughts are damaging to yellow birch because of its shallow
- Yellow birch is intermediate in shade tolerance. Yellow birch is described
as opportunistic due to its habit of producing abundant small seed.
Yellow birch seeds comprised a higher than expected proportion (compared
to the abundance of mature trees) of the seed rain and seedbank of a
mixed forest. The presence of yellow birch in mid- to late-successional
stands depends on local disturbance; it cannot reproduce under a closed
canopy and requires soil disturbance and light for seedling survival.
The origin of the gap is apparently important; in upper Michigan, yellow
birch apparently failed to establish readily in gaps formed by stem
breakage because soil was undisturbed.
- Sugar maple seedlings produce an allelopathic substance that inhibits
the root growth of yellow birch seedlings.
- A common early to mid-successional associate in aspen-birch stands.
In northern hardwood ecosystems, yellow birch reaches maximum importance
levels within 15 years of disturbance, and those levels are maintained
for at least 100 years. On Isle Royale, a paper birch-dominated stand
that originated after fire early in this century is undergoing canopy
invasion by sugar maple and yellow birch.
- Second-growth stands usually contain approximately the same percentage
of yellow birch as virgin stands. Yellow birch occurs on fine till with
importance peaking at about 80 years. On sandy soils, the trend is indistinct,
probably declining over time.
- Mid- to Late-Successional Stands: Yellow birch is abundant in mid-
to late-successional balsam fir-yellow birch-paper birch-white spruce
(Picea glauca) stands on Isle Royale. In many old-growth stands, yellow
birch gradually decreases in importance as the stand ages.
- Susceptible to fire injury due to its thin bark; young trees and seedlings
generally do not survive even low-intensity fire. Mature trees may survive
because the thin forest floor under large trees does not usually support
severe or persistent surface fire.
- Though typically a poor sprouter after top-kill from fire, seed germination
and seedling establishment are enhanced by fire disturbance. Low intensity
fires in particular create favorable conditions for post-fire regeneration
by reducing the hardwood leaf mat and exposing mineral soil, while leaving
mature trees as a seed source.
- Heinselman suggested that the presence of yellow birch in old mixed
forests is hard explain without fire disturbance; however, other authors
describe yellow birch as opportunistic with respect to fire but not
- Typically occurs in forests with fire-free intervals of at least 150-300
years; the fire regime is characterized by crown and severe surface
fires in combination. In the Great Lakes States presettlement northern
hardwoods-pine-spruce-fir forests probably had a semieven-aged structure
where less shade-tolerant components were maintained by long-return
interval disturbances such as fire or windstorms. Most fires in these
forests were severe surface fires, occurring only after prolonged drought,
and usually affecting forests that were breaking up due to other factors
(and thus had heavy fuels).
- Trees: American mountain-ash (Sorbus
- Shrubs: mountain maple, alternate-leaved dogwood
beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta),
American fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis), Canada elderberry
(Sambucus canadensis), Canada yew (Taxus
canadensis), and mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)
- Ground Covers:
- Mammals: Browsed by moose, white-tailed deer, and
snowshoe hare. Deer consume large numbers of seedlings in summer, and
prefer green leaves and woody stems in fall. Red squirrel cut and store
mature strobili, eat yellow birch seeds, and also feed on birch sap.
Beaver and porcupine chew the bark.
- Birds: seeds are consumed by common redpoll, pine
siskin, chickadees, and other songbirds. Ruffed grouse feed on seeds,
catkins, and buds. The yellow-bellied sapsucker uses yellow birch as
a summer food source.
- Bark used to make storage containers, sap dishes, rice baskets,
buckets, trays and winnowing dishes.
- Bark placed on the coffins when burying the dead.
- Bark used to make birch bark canoes. Bark used to build dwellings
- Sap and maple sap used for a pleasant beverage drink
- Decoction of bark taken for internal blood diseases.
- Compound decoction of inner bark taken as a diuretic.
- An economically important source of lumber. The wood is heavy, strong,
and close-grained. It is used for furniture, cabinetry, charcoal, pulp,
interior finish, veneer, tool handles, boxes, woodenware, and interior
- Tapped for sap which is used to make an edible syrup.
- Tea can be made from the twigs and/or inner bark.
- Chips can be used to produce ethanol and other products.
- Rreproduces primarily by seed; seedlings and young saplings will sprout
but sprouts are weak and short lived. Older trees do not sprout.
- First produces seed at about 40 years, with optimum seed production
at about 70 years of age. Good seed crops are produced at 1-4 year intervals
with limited seed production in the intervening seasons. A prolific
seed producer in good years, seed viability is usually quite good though
declining significantly in the second year on the ground.
- Seed is disseminated by wind, with most falling after the onset of
cold weather. The winged seeds may travel nearly a mile over crusted
snow though most end up within an area roughly equivalent to four times
the height of the tree.
- Seeds contain a water-soluble germination inhibitor, inactivated by
light. Yellow birch seeds germinate and grow best on moist mineral soil
enriched with humus; bare mineral soil and duff alone are unsuitable
substrates. However, in undisturbed stands, germination of yellow birch
seeds usually occurs on mossy logs, decayed wood, in cracks in boulders
and on windthrown tree hummocks. Optimum germination of yellow birch
occurs at 59 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit (15-16 deg C).
- Seedlings require overhead light, crown expansion space, and plentiful
soil moisture and nutrients to compete with faster growing associates;
conditions found in gaps are conducive to yellow birch seedling establishment.
Some shade improves seedling survival. Mortality of yellow birch seedlings
is usually very high, reported to be as high as 97%. Seedling survival
is better on disturbed microsites; seedlings that germinate on litter
are unlikely to survive. Seedlings surviving their first year survive
to sapling and larger stages only where there is sufficient light. Growth
is better on humus over sandy loams than on decayed logs, mineral soil,
- The pistillate catkins of yellow birch form in the fall, and finish
development from late May to early June. The fruit ripens from late
August to early September. The phenology of yellow birch in northern
Minnesota was reported as follows:
- flower appearance April 2 to May 16
- initial bud swell April 6 to May 1
- leaf out May 3 to May 25
- anthesis May 13 to May 29
- seed fall (initiation) August 6
- leaf fall September 26 to October 4
- By seed. Under artificial conditions, seed dormancy is broken by stratification
or by exposure of imbibed seed to cool-white fluorescent light.
- Also by greenwood cuttings and grafting.
- Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
- Growth rate Rapid
- Cultivars and species available by mail order from specialty suppliers
or at local nurseries
Last updated on
4 March, 2006