TREES & plants

Gray birch

The bark of gray birch is smooth and white.

Gray birch is a narrow, pyramidal tree of cool climates. Bright green leaves turn a yellow fall color. Older trees develop a chalky white bark that does not peel. A good selection for poor soils and other difficult sites, it also demonstrates some resistance to bronze birch borer (BBB). 

This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.

Botanical name: 
Betula populifolia
All Common Names: 
gray birch, white birch, poplar birch
Family (English): 
Family (Botanic): 
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
Native Locale: 
  • North America
Planting Site: 
  • Residential and parks, 
  • Wide median
Landscape Uses: 
  • Shade tree, 
  • Specimen
Size Range: 
  • Medium tree (25-40 feet), 
  • Small tree (15-25 feet)
Mature Height: 
20-40 feet
Mature Width: 
10-20 feet
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 3, 
  • Zone 4, 
  • Zone 5 (Chicago), 
  • Zone 6, 
  • Zone 7
Soil Preference: 
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Acid Soils: 
  • Tolerant
Alkaline Soils: 
  • Intolerant
Salt Spray: 
  • Tolerant
Soil Salt: 
  • Intolerant
Drought Conditions: 
  • Tolerant
Poor Drainage: 
  • Tolerant
Planting Considerations: 
  • May be difficult to find in nurseries
Ornamental Interest: 
  • Spring blossoms, 
  • Fall color, 
  • Attractive bark
Season of Interest: 
  • Early winter, 
  • Mid winter, 
  • Late winter, 
  • Early fall, 
  • Mid fall
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
Shape or Form: 
  • Narrow, 
  • Pyramidal
Growth Rate: 
  • Moderate
Transplants Well: 
  • Moderate
  • Game birds, 
  • Insect pollinators, 
  • Sapsuckers, 
  • Small mammals, 
  • Songbirds
More Information: 

Tree & Plant Care

A medium sized tree tolerant of hot, dry summers and poor soils.
Considered to have a short life span. Cultivar 'Whitespire' more desirable.
Avoid pruning birches in spring as they are bleeders (will lose quantities of sap).
Best planted  in spring.

Disease, pests and problems

Leaf miners and cankers are possible.
Chlorosis may occur in high pH soils.

Disease, pest, and problem resistance

Resistant to bronze birch borer and air pollution.

Native geographic location and habitat

Native to the northeastern United States.
Common on poor soils.

Bark color and texture 

Young trees have a reddish-brown color, older trees develop a chalky white bark that does not peel.
Black triangular patches form on bark, under branches.

Gray birch (Betula populifolia)Gray birch (Betula populifolia)photo: John Hagstrom
Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Simple, alternate leaves; 2 to 3 inches long.
Dark green, triangular-shaped, shiny, pendulous  leaves.
Margins are double serrated, leaf tip is long and pointed.
Yellow fall color.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Inconspicuous;  male flowers in cylindrical catkins; females also in a cylindrical structure, but much smaller.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Cylindrical clusters of winged nutlets, borne at end of branches, 2 to -3 inches long.

Cultivars and their differences 

“This plant is a cultivar of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits."

Whitespire Senior gray birch  (Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’):  Good resistance to bronze birch borer.  The name 'Whitespire' was incorrectly assigned to Betula platyphylla.  It is now assigned to Betula populifolia and the plants are often sold under the name 'Whitespire Senior' to avoid confusion.

Betula populifolia or Gray birch