June 28, 2010

House of the Three Birches

Betula papyrifera

Our house is strangely sited on our half acre lot right up against the building line on the east, leaving the west side with a big open patch of yard, lots of yard.  All on one side of the house.

Not knowing what to do with all that open lawn on the side, we opted for some trees to start with, and planted three paper birches in a rough triangle to fill the space.  Later a garden was added in the middle, and other landscaping, but the three birches, with their glowing white bark that can be seen from down the street, remain the focal point of our home.

White birches are one of those native trees that grow wild in the woods, and seem to thrive anywhere -- on dry rocky outcrops, deep in the forest, all along the highways, but in a cultivated yard they become finicky.  They need a lot of water (I almost hear a sucking sound when I run the hose at their roots in summer), they get borers, and I find them to be messy trees, dropping branches and twigs all over.  But they are pretty, and iconic.  These are the trees that birch bark canoes are made from.

To keep them healthy, we spray for borers each year; to keep them from wilting and sulking I water them when there isn't enough rain.  Neither practice is very eco friendly.

And to keep them neater, I prune them.  Here's one after her haircut:

They grow criss-crossing branches, they grow way too many branches, and they get wildly shrubby, so the canopy always needs to be thinned out.  They need to be limbed up to show off their best feature, the peeling white bark, which sheds.   I find little strips of white parchment in my garden beds, as if the fairies who live there were tossing away sheets of paper as they write their notes.

Cut branches and logs make nice decorations; they keep their bark color and can be used for garden features.

Fall color is supposed to be a showy clear yellow, but the past several summers have been very wet, and they got a leaf spot fungus that defoliated them by Labor Day.  We're probably too warm and humid here in the summers for paper birches to do really well.  They thrive in zones 2 and 3.

They are far from trouble-free trees for me, and probably not the best choice for our landscape, but they are striking and they do define our home in the neighborhood. "That's Jim and Laurrie's house, the one with the three birches."

And besides, if I ever need to evacuate during a flood, we can make a canoe.

In MoBot's database
In University of Connecticut's plant files


  1. I love your birches - it seems I have at least one birch wherever I am. Currently, I must say it's easier to maintain them when they are planted in a damp streamside location - no spraying necessary, just a tuneup pruning occasionally.

  2. Your birches are pretty but they wouldn't last here. Our summers are too hot and dry. I used to see people try to grow them around here but I think everyone knows they are asking for heartache if they try to grow them. I hope you are a fast canoe builder.

  3. Oh, I do love white birches, Laurrie, and your trio are lovely. When my parents were researching a tree to replace one lost in a tornado, I remember they were told birches in general don't do well in our zone 7b area. Makes sense, if they thrive in Zones 2 and 3, I suppose. :)

  4. Cyndy, I do think mine would be better in a shadier and less exposed area, but with help, they're growing.

    Lisa, I'd hate to have to actually chop one down for a canoe!

    Meredith, thanks. I am missing your blog, and hope you'll be back at the keyboard soon.

  5. Ha ha, now that's what I call looking on the bright side of things! I have been toying with planting a paper birch down by the stream, partly because Hubby loves them and partly because I love to decorate with chunks of them at Christmas! But I'm thinking that if they need the level of maintenance that my apple trees need (and so far haven't gotten!), then perhaps I should pass on this one! Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
    - Meg

  6. I love white birches. Lately here though it is just too dry for them. I see so many dying from the top down, it just breaks my heart.

    Yours look super!

  7. Meg, I think you should try one... if it's wet enough by the stream and if you don't care about keeping it neat (go for the wilder look) it should do fine without so much care.

    Garden Ms. S, it's funny how paper birches grow in the driest places in rocky outcrops, and then get fussy for moisture when planted in a landscape.


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