Members of the genus Betula, birch trees are medium-sized, deciduous trees often prized by landscapers for their decorative, peeling bark and yellow fall foliage. While most species of birch are found in colder, northern climates, a few species are native to the southeastern United States. North Carolina is home to at least four types of birch trees.
Also called the black birch or cherry birch, the sweet birch (Betula lenta) is named for the aromatic smell of wintergreen that emanates from its leaves and twigs when crushed. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the sweet birch was once the main source of oil of wintergreen, a substance used as a flavoring and for medicinal purposes. Although the sweet birch is found predominately in the northeastern United States, it is also native to the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina. The sweet birch grows to a height of 50 to 75 feet and has dark, brownish-black bark that resembles the bark of the black cherry tree. According to the Western North Carolina Nature Center (N. C. Nature Center), the sweet birch is typically found in western North Carolina at elevations between 2,000 to 4,500 feet and prefers protected northern or eastern slopes with moist, well-drained soil.
Also known as the red birch, water birch or black birch, the river birch (Betula nigra) is a popular ornamental landscape tree. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the river birch is one of the few birch trees found predominately in the hot, humid southeastern United States, ranging from Texas to Virginia. The river birch is found in western North Carolina growing at elevations between 1,800 feet and 2,205 feet and is typically found alongside stream banks. According to the North Carolina State University, the river birch prefers moist, well-drained soil and grows moderately fast, typically reaching heights of 40 to 70 feet.
Also called the white birch, canoe birch or silver birch, the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is recognized by its showy white bark that peels off the tree in strips. According to the N.C. Nature Center, the paper birch is commonly found in cooler, northern regions from Newfoundland to Alaska, but also grows in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. The paper birch prefers moist, sandy loam soils and is often used as an ornamental landscape tree. The buds, bark and seeds of this tree are eaten by a variety of wildlife.
Ranging from Canada to northern Georgia, the yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) is recognized by its smooth, shiny, yellowish-bronze to reddish-brown bark that separates easily from the trunk. According to the N. C. Nature Center, the yellow birch is found in western North Carolina growing in moist gorges above 3,000 feet in elevation. Yellow birch lumber is used for making cabinets, furniture and doors. Its twigs and bark have an aromatic smell and taste of wintergreen.