When we moved here, there was a single Oldfield birch tree canted at an improbable angle by the driveway. Ash-colored and striated with charcoal, it glowed in the evening light like a slim Leaning Tower of Pisa. In fall, it carpeted the ground with brilliant yellow leaves, a striking contrast to the crimson of the dogwood and the paper-bag brown of the sycamore. During my Earth-mother phase, I used its bark and green shoots to make birch tea, which I had read is a good general tonic. The flavor wasn't great, but I felt both healthy and self-righteous, which helped to make up for it.
Birch (Betula), whose bark and sap have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, has been used medicinally for centuries. Native Americans brewed tea from silver birch (Betula pendula) to treat gout and rheumatism, and to dissolve kidney stones. They also used the sap to treat eczema and other skin problems, while Europeans made birch beer from its bark.
Unfortunately, our driveway birch tree grew steadily more anemic until it collapsed onto the poppies. I learned only later that Oldfield birch (Betula populifolia) is not native to Maryland, so keeping it healthy in our Eastern Shore yard demanded more TLC than I usually allot to any one plant.
Depending upon whom or what you're consulting, there are between 40 and 70 species of birch scattered throughout Europe, North America and Asia. The confusion may result from the multiple common names individual varieties carry. For example, Oldfield birch is also known as white birch, gray birch, poverty birch and poplar birch.
Although birch is native to North America, not all varieties thrive in Maryland. The Oldfield type is happier in more northern climes, as is the beautiful white birch (Betula papyrifera), also called paper birch or canoe birch, a native of Canada.
Botanist Rod Simmons says three species are native to the Tidewater and Piedmont region: river birch (Betula nigra), sweet birch (Betula lenta) and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis).
Yellow birch is usually found in mountains. Sweet birch is a mid-ground tree. (Patapsco State Park has some nice ones in the ravines.) And river birch is usually found on flood plains. The river birch, a particular favorite with landscapers, boasts the same spectacular yellow fall leaf color as other birches, but its real claim to fame is its distinctive peeling bark, like something out of a Star Trek botanical.
"The 'Heritage' variety of river birch has absolutely gorgeous peach-to-tan-colored peeling bark," says landscape architect Mary Pat Rowen.
In summer, the bark looks like ruffled, multihued petticoats beneath shining green leaves. In winter, it adds sculpted drama to an otherwise unadorned landscape.
"In spring, they have nice brownish-yellow catkins that the birds like," says Nancy Lee Adamson, nursery manager at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, which has a lovely stand of 'Heritage' river birches at its entrance.
In addition to being beautiful, river birches are adaptable.
"They are early successionals," says Adamson, which means they are the first to spring up in a new forest and then eventually give way to other species as the forest develops and ages. "They can adapt to harsher conditions. They're often used in forest restoration projects."
This wide use also makes them readily available, especially as potted whips, which are inexpensive and easy to establish.
"A small, container-grown tree is carrying all its roots," observes Lou Aronica, landscaper and founding member of the Maryland Native Plant Society. "When you dig a [larger] tree for transplanting, you're getting about 10 percent of the roots, and the tree takes time to make up that deficit."
Birches are fast-growing, so within five years or so, a 4-foot whip can become a healthy 10- to 15-foot tree.
Choosing a site
If they like their location, native birches are virtually maintenance-free. They need full sun and, like evergreens, azaleas and rhododendrons, they need slightly acid soil, about pH 6.5.
Despite the name, river birches also do well in most garden loam, Rowen says. She likes to plant them in groves of three to five in imitation of their natural tendency to form self-protective clusters, and often puts them in front of a window for best viewing.
"The river birch is columnar in shape," she says, "rather than spreading. It allows a lot of light to come through, and you can look out and enjoy their beautiful bark and leaves."
In choosing a site for planting, remember that most birches produce catkins (soft little droopy seedpods) that will drop in May or June, so if you don't want to have to sweep them off your patio (they tend to stick after a rain), don't plant them by the barbecue.
Native birches have very few problems -- leaf miner is one that can be controlled with systemic insecticides. Beautiful but nonnative white birch often attracts bronze birch borers that start at the top of a tree and eat their way down. They are tough to treat, and if left untreated will usually kill a tree in about two or three years.
10342 Owen Brown Road
Columbia, MD 21044
11300 Baltimore Ave.
Beltsville, MD 20705
Environmental Concern Inc.
P.O. Box P
201 Boundary Lane
St Michaels, MD 21663
A nonprofit that sells retail and wholesale river birch
12610 Eveland Road
P.O. Box 100
Ridgely, MD 21660
743 W. Central Ave.
Davidsonville, MD 21035
Maryland Native Plant Society
Information on Maryland natives, nurseries and more