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):

Birch

Family (Botanic):

Betulaceae

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Tree

Foliage:

  • 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

Wildlife:

  • 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.

Location of Betula populifolia (Gray birch) at the Arboretum