Yellow Birch

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
While strolling to the Marsh Botanical Gardens, you can spot this beautiful yellow birch perched in the middle of a sloping hill just off of Prospect Street, near the parking lot of the gardens. This tree can be distinguished because of its complex system of multiple, twisting trunks and of its unusual bark, which has a yellow-gold color, the namesake of this tree. Parts of this bark are almost flake-like, peeling away if touched! Scratching on the birch’s twigs may also give off the scent of a winter-green oil, a kind of natural perfume. Pointy flowers known as catkins, which resemble slender cones, become increasingly apparent in warmer months, so keep your eyes out for those. In the summer and fall especially, this tree provides a wonderful sanctuary for anyone looking for a bit of solace and shade in the sometimes chaotic Elm City, so come pop a squat!
Alice Tao and Lily McCarthy
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Round shape
Date of tree entry: 
27.60 m
Diameter at breast height: 
2.13 m

There are too many multiple trunks to accurately measure the DBH, so this is just an estimate
The bark of a young yellow birch is a dark reddish brown, but when the tree reaches maturity, the bark becomes more of a shiny yellow-brown color. On older trunks, the smooth bark of the younger tree begins to break open and curl back, with the bark peeling in thin horizontal strips. The bark also has small black marks in horizontal lines, which are known as lenticels. Lenticels function as pores for the tree, allowing for direct exchange of gases with the atmosphere through the bark. Once the tree reaches a diameter greater than 1 foot, closer to the base of the tree, the bark typically stops shredding and instead begins to reveal a platy outer bark (Furlow, 1997).
Twigs & branches
The twigs of the yellow birch can be scraped or broken, and give off the scent of wintergreen oil. They are slender, and are a green-brown color on younger trees. On older, more mature trees, the twigs become more smooth and light-brown. Spur shoots appear on older twigs, with pointed, reddish brown buds (USDA, 2008).
The leaves of the yellow birch are dark green when viewed from above, but are a paler green on the bottom surface. The leaves have an alternate leaf arrangement where a single leaf is attached at each node, and the nodes are not directly across from one another on the twigs of the tree. Each leaf is broad and flat, with a long and oval shape that narrows near the tip of the leaf. They are generally twice as long as they are wide, being about 4 to 6 inches long. The leaves are simple and are pinnately-veined with an acute tip, rounded base, and a very short petiole around 1 cm long. Usually, the leaves are also somewhat soft or fuzzy to the touch. The margins of the leaves are finely serrated, with fine double teeth and smaller teeth between the larger teeth. In the fall, the leaves turn a bright yellow color (Dirr, 1990).
Reproductive Structures
The flowers of the yellow birch are called catkins, and are wind-pollinated thin structures which open in late spring. Each plant is monoecious, meaning that the same tree will have both male and female flowers. Male and female catkins differ from one another in length, with male catkins being longer at 5-10 cm while female catkins are generally 1.5-3 cm long. Female catkins also point upward, while male catkins hang downwards from the branches. Finally, while the female catkins arise from short spur branches that are present in the fall and winter, the male catkins occur in groups of 3-6, depending on the growth from the previous year (Hilty, 2016).
The fruit matures in the fall and is made of many miniature winged seeds, which are organized in between the catkin bracts, small modified leaves or scales with a flower or flower cluster in their axils (Erdmann, 1990). Mature trees often produce seeds at around 40 years of age, although this process can sometimes begin in 20 year old trees (USDA, 2008). Successful seed crops do not occur that often and are not produced every year. Instead, they generally arise every 1 to 4 years. There is limited production of seeds in between these good years. Mossy logs provide fertile grounds for germination. A closed canopy, with full shade, is not conducive to the growth of yellow birch saplings, as disturbances in a forest are necessary for effective development.
  • Spring
  • Winter
  • Fall
  • Summer
Natural range of distribution: 
The yellow birch grows well in moist conditions, such as alongside streams. However, it does poorly in locations where there is standing water. The yellow birch also grows poorly in shade, needing full sun to thrive. It is usually found singly or in small groups, and is never a dominant species. It is a long-lived tree of the northern hardwood forest ecosystem, usually occurring in swampy woods, higher elevation forests, and slopes (Erdmann, 1990). This tree generally grows in colder conditions and does not grow well in dry areas or areas with extremely hot summers. It flourishes in soil with a pH ranging from 4-8. The yellow birch ranges from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Anticosti Island west. It extends through southern Ontario and continues to extreme southeastern Manitoba. In the United States, it also radiates south to Minnesota and northeastern Iowa. Furthermore, it is distributed east to northern Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and also to northern New Jersey and New England. Finally, it is also present south in the Appalachian Mountains to eastern Tennessee and northeastern Georgia (USDA, 2008).
Origin, history, and uses: 

The yellow birch is a critical lumber species of birch that is native to north-eastern North America. Its common name describes the color of the tree’s bark, which has a yellow-bronze shade. Interestingly this species is the provincial tree of Quebec. There, it is typically referred to as the merisier, which is a French term for wild cherry. First incorrectly categorized by Francois André Michaux in 1812 as Betula lutea, it was later identified to be the same as a seemingly separate species, Betula alleghaniensis, which was in fact the same species, as American botanist Merritt Fernald clarified in the early 20th century. The specific epithet alleghaniensis is translated as “of the Allegheny Mountains,” part of the large Appalachian Mountain range in the United States. The wood of the yellow birch is even-textured, heavy, and strong, making it great for usage in furniture, cabinetry, finish, and other woodenware. It is one of the main hardwoods used in the distillation of wood alcohol, tar, and oils. The seeds of the yellow birch are consumed by many different types of wildlife, including deer, songbirds, moose, and squirrels. Beavers and porcupines eat the bark of the tree. Furthermore, the yellow birch can be tapped for sap, which can then be used as edible syrup. The twigs or inner bark are sometimes used to make tea (USDA, 2008). Historically, Native Americans have also used the yellow birch for therapeutic purposes, serving as a blood purifier (Furlow, 1997). The indigenous Ojibwe also make a compound from the inner bark and consume it as a diuretic, use whole pieces of bark in the treatment of blood diseases, and mix its sap with maple sap for a pleasant beverage drink (Hoffman, 1891). This group additionally uses the bark to construct dwellings, lodges, canoes, storage containers, sap dishes, rice baskets, buckets trays, dishes, and coffins.

Phenology is defined as the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, particularly as related to climate and the lives of plants and animals. A deciduous tree, the yellow birch has structures that resemble cones on its bare winter twigs (Krantz, 2019). The cone-like structures are remnants of upright female catkins. These are pollinated by pollen transported by the wind from the male catkins, which typically droop, in the spring. The seed ripens in the late summer and is dispersed by the wind in the winter when it lands on the snow. There is a substantial amount of seeds produced during a three-year cycle, which begins when the yellow birches are around 40 years old. This survival mechanism is necessary because the seeds have highly specific requirements in terms of the soil and climate conditions they need to be most successful. To illustrate, seeds that germinate in leaf litter often do not survive when the litter dries out in the summer, and growing sprouts frequently freeze in the event that an early frost occurs. Ideal growing conditions are found on moss-covered conifer logs and stumps and areas of exposed soil rich in nutrients and other materials. To provide further insight into specific components of this species, the leaves of the yellow birch turn a bright yellow color in the fall, and the flowers, or wind-pollinated catkins, open in the late spring (Furlow, 1997). The fruit becomes mature in the fall and is composed of many small winged seeds arranged in between elements of the catkins (Kudish, 1992).

Photo from: USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center: Digital Representations of Tree Species Range Maps from “Atlas of United States Trees” by Elbert L. Little, Jr. (and other publications)

Dirr, Michael A (1990). Manual of woody landscape plants (4. ed., rev. ed.). Champaign, Illinois: Stipes Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-87563-344-2.

Erdmann, G. G. 1990. Betula alleghaniensis Britton yellow birch. In: Burns, Russell M.; Honkala, Barbara H., technical coordinators. Silvics of North America. Volume 2. Hardwoods. Agric. Handb. 654. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: 133-147.  [21816]

Furlow, John J. (1997). “Betula alleghaniensis”. In Flora of North America Editorial Committee. Flora of North America North of Mexico (FNA).
Hilty, John (2016). “Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)”. Illinois Wildflowers. Retrieved 26 July 2016.

Hoffman, W.J., 1891, The Midewiwin or ‘Grand Medicine Society’ of the Ojibwa, SI-BAE Annual Report #7, 199.

Krantz, Anne, 2019. “Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) New Hampshire’s Big Tree for May.’ University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. 1-2. 

USDA, NRCS. 2008. The PLANTS Database. Available at: (Accessed: 15 April 2019).

Media and Arts
Well here’s our tree and her name is Betula
She tried to be chill but she’s a little bit flaky
Her bark fell through the cracks
And now she’s trying to have catkins
Before the warmth done run out
She’ll be sending her seeds out
And nothing’s going to stop her but not enough sunlight
She’ll need some mossy logs
And lots of good rich soil
Her bark is yellow so we call her yellow birch
Betula, lenticels and all, we’re yours

Image icon Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)1.6 MB
Image icon Catkins1.33 MB
Image icon Leaves1.28 MB