Everyone recognizes a birch tree, with its attractive bark, oval, pointed leaves and thin, slightly hanging branches. However for many years the usual tree grown was the European White Birch, which is very likely to die young from an insect called the Bronze Birch Borer. The good news is that we have many native American birch trees that are not affected by this pest and will grow rapidly and easily in many different conditions. One of the very best choices, especially for colder regions, is the Black Birch, also known as the sweet birch or spice birch for the sweet smell of its bark. It is also called cherry birch because the beautiful bark is a warm cherry-red color, glossy and smooth with broad paler horizontal streaks.
The Black Birch grows steadily at a foot or two a year until it reaches 40 or 50 feet tall in just 20 years or so. This makes it an ideal choice for smaller gardens, since it will rapidly mature, but not become a 100 foot monster that fills your yard. It also has a light, airy look, with fine, slightly hanging branches and delicate leaves, quite different from the heavier look of a Maple or Oak. A tree like this is an ideal companion to a smaller home or a smaller yard, bringing shade and beauty without crowding you out. You are also growing a native tree, with no danger of seeds escaping and affecting surrounding natural areas with a foreign species.
Growing Black Birch Trees
The Black Birch is an ideal choice for colder gardens, where it thrives even down to minus 40 degrees. It will also grow well in warmer areas, but if you live in very hot, humid areas we recommend the River Birch, which is more suited to those conditions. The Black Birch also grows in any kind of soil, from sand to clay and it is ideal for low-lying wet areas and along water. Although it will survive a normal dry summer in cooler areas, it is not considered to be especially drought-resistant.
Uses and Lifespan
Plant the Black Birch as a single specimen, or as a beautiful group of 3 or 5 trees, since birch trees always look lovely in a group. This tree also makes a great boundary tree for your property, or a wind-break. Young trees have a dense, pyramidal shape when young, become more open and irregular with age. They can live to be 150 or 200 years old. This tree is not affected by the Bronze Birch Borer, so it will be long-lived and trouble-free.
Appearance of the Black Birch Tree
The Black Birch, Betula lenta, is an American native tree that grows naturally throughout the east, from Maine, through the Appalachian Mountains into northern Georgia and into Kentucky and Alabama. It is a medium-sized tree that can reach 40 to 50 feet in height and be 25 to 45 feet across, but it is usually smaller, especially when grown in normal garden conditions.
Bark and Trunk
The main feature of this tree is the bark, which is an attractive mahogany-brown color and is smooth and glossy, not peeling off like some other birch trees do. Across the bark are horizontal, lighter-brown marks, which make the tree look a little like a Cherry Tree, which is why it is also called the Cherry Birch. Older trunks can sometimes become dark brown and ridged, which is why it is called Black Birch.
Leaves and Flowers
The leaves are 2½ to 6 inches long and 2 inches wide, a triangular-oval shape and pointed toward the tip. The leaves are glossy and have tiny soft teeth along the edges. In fall the leaves turn a wonderful shade of soft yellow, making the tree glow in the fall sun. Once your tree is a little older you will see it flowering in early spring, before the leaves. The flowers are tiny, in narrow clusters called ‘catkins’ that hang down and are 2 to 3 inches long. Although not especially showy they are interesting and add a charm to the tree as the seasons change.
Aroma and Syrup Production
This tree was once harvested to extract oil of wintergreen from the inner layers of the bark. Peel a strip from a small branch and smell the delicious aroma! The tree can also be tapped for syrup, which is darker and richer than the syrup made from maple trees. The wood from old trees is prized as a replacement for tropical mahogany, as it is the same color and hardness for making fine furniture.
Planting Your Black Birch Tree
Choose a sunny location for your tree and place it 10 feet from a building, swimming pool or septic system and 6 feet from a driveway. If you are creating a group of Black Birch, trees can be planted as close as 3 feet to each other to form a clump, or further apart, perhaps 8 or 10 feet, to make a grouping. For a boundary row or along a stream, allow 10 feet between the trees and set them back 10 feet from the legal boundary of your property.
To Plant your Black Birch, dig a hole that is three times the width of the pot and just a little deeper. Add some organic material to the soil you have removed from the hole and place your tree at the same depth it was in the pot. Replace most of the soil and firm it down well around the root-ball. Fill the hole with water and wait for it to drain away, and then replace the rest of the soil. Water your tree well every week for the first year and then when the soil becomes dry. The more water you give this tree the faster it will grow.
Buying Black Birches at The Tree Center
Our Black Birch are grown for us from seed collected from perfect specimens with the best features of this tree. These are carefully grown into sturdy trees with strong roots and upright trunks. Avoid cheaper trees that can be lower quality and grow weakly and slowly. The Black Birch is a popular native tree and because it is so attractive and ideal for colder areas it is often in high demand. We constantly receive new stock to be able to ship the best plants to our customers, but shortages can occur.