How to Identify a Common Birch Tree

North American Trees in the Birch Genus Betula

Birch bark, leaves, fruit and range
River Birch and Range Collage. Wikicommons (GooGoo85 and Greg Hume, USFS

Birch is the name of any tree of the genus Betula, in the family Betulaceae, closely related to the beech/oak family, Fagaceae. Birch species are generally small to medium-size trees or shrubs, mostly of northern temperate climates. The simple leaves may be toothed or pointed and the fruit is a small samara. The bark of all birches is characteristically marked with long horizontal lenticels and often separates into thin papery plates, especially the Paper Birch.

All North American birches have double-toothed leaves and are yellow and showy in the Fall. Male catkins appear in late summer near the tips of small twigs or long shoots. The female cone-like catkins follow in the spring and bare small winged samaras drop from that mature structure.

Interestingly, the sweet sap can be reduced into syrup and was once used as birch beer. The tree is an important timber tree and valuable to wildlife.

The Common North American Birch Species

  • yellow birch
  • river birch
  • paper birch

Dormant Identification

Often confused with beech, hophornbeam and ironwood which has a slim terminal bud, birch will have short scaled buds (vs. very distinctive long scaled buds on beech).  Yellow birch has mostly smooth bark while river and paper birch has outer bark peeling in papery layers. Birch has male and female parts on the same tree (male long catkins, female short cones).

Tips: Yellow birch has wintergreen tasting twig; River birch has salmon colored exfoliating bark; paper (canoe) birch has creamy white thin bark separating into papery strips.

Leaves: alternate, simple, doubly saw-toothed.
Bark: peeling papery layers.
Fruit: nuts or nutlets in cones.


The Most Common North American Hardwood List

  •  cottonwood  - Genus Populus

  •  elm  - Genus ​Ulmus

  •  hackberry  - Genus  Celtis

  •  hickory  - Genus  Carya

  •  holly  - Genus  IIex

  •  locust - Genus Robinia and Gleditsia

  •  magnolia  - Genus  Magnolia

  •  maple - Genus Acer

  •  oak - Genus Quercus

  •  poplar  - Genus Populus

  •  red alder  - Genus  Alnus

  •  royal paulownia  - Genus Paulownia

  •  sassafras  - Genus  Sassafras

  •  sweetgum - Genus Liquidambar

  •  sycamore  - Genus  Platanus

  •  tupelo  - Genus  Nyssa

  •  willow  - Genus  Salix

  •  yellow-poplar - Genus Liriodendron