White Birch Trees

Question from Barbara:
Do white birch trees grow in CA?

Answer from Pat:
You are the second person today who has written to ask about European white birch (Betula pendula.) I agree it’s lovely looking tree. No doubt about that. Also, yes it will grow here in California, probably better in coastal northern California than Southern California. The problem is that this tree comes with a flock of built-in problems. It is prone to attack by borers, which can girdle the bark and kill the tree. It hates extreme heat, it does better with a cold winter, and also, it requires deep, well drained, fertile soil, and not many gardens here can fill this requirement. However, a few gardens provide the right situation for European birch which are as follows: Plentiful irrigation, fast drainage, deep fertile soil, afternoon shade from burning hot sun, and an organic garden with many beneficials in residence to protect against borers and leaf miners. When you count all these requirements, perhaps you might decide it would be better to study the lists in Sunset Western Garden Book and find some tree you like that is well- adapted to growing in a dry Mediterranean climate where you don’t need to stand on your head trying to recreate England or New England here in California.

However, I understand falling in love. If you fall in love with a man because he is so wonderful, but he has a few built-in faults, I would say it’s better to marry him anyway and find ways to cope. Sometimes you just can’t help yourself. So the other course of action is to knock yourself out doing everything right: Fix drainage so it’s rapid, make soil magnificent, build a raised bed or mound the soil to create perfection beyond belief, feed with organic fertilizer, introduce beneficial insects galore, provide afternoon shade, and protect the patient from burning heat— (hmm, an electric fan?… How far are we going to go?) But if you’re willing to do all this, then throw your heart over the jump and plant the tree you love. Before doing all this, however, please read elsewhere on this blog the caveats I have written to various other people afflicted with violent, irrational love for European white birch (Betula pendula.)

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  1. I am looking for a tree that was planted along the Ca. railroads to supply them with railroads ties. It did not work but now Ca. has many of these trees. I believe they may have come from Australia where there wood was very hard; not so here, or some reason. Do you know of any such tree? I thought it may be the Birch tree.

    • The tree that was used in Australia for railroad ties was eucalyptus. Several species of eucalyptus are useful for lumber in Australia and several of these make excellent railroad ties since the wood is extremely hard and long-lasting, with little tendency to rot. Beginning in 1850 about fifty species of eucalyptus were imported into the USA and later around 1910 eighteen varieties of eucalyptus were selected among those known in Australia as especially useful for timber, including certain ones for railroad ties. These species were planted in several areas up and down the West coast, including a huge plantation by the Santa Fe Railroad in the area of San Diego County now known as Rancho Santa Fe. The main species planted in Rancho Santa Fe seems to have been red gum eucalyptus (E. camaldulensis), one of the best two eucalyptus known in its native Australia for lumber and railroad ties, and white ironbark (Eucalyptus leucoxylon), which is also a tree prized as lumber in Australia, but some other species were tried out as well. Unfortunately, red ironbark is highly susceptible to the Red Gum Lerp Psyllid, that got started in California in 1998 and this has caused repeated defoliation of the red gum trees and often resulted in death of this species of eucalyptus in Rancho Santa Fe.

      Around 1920 a few trees were harvested and given a trial as railroad ties by the Santa Fe, but unfortunately the weather in California is not suited to growing eucalyptus for lumber. The wood was found to be internally twisted and having a tendency to split. All this happened long before any pests afflicted eucalyptus in California so you can imaging what a huge disappointment this was to the railroad. The railroad sold off their land for development and the first buyers came from Chicago, where the railroad’s headquarters were located. Rancho Santa Fe was touted to wealthy people there as a great place to retire due to its fabulous climate.

      Though eucalyptus was a failure here as a timber tree it could be used for other purposes and wherever groves of them were planted, many ended up as firewood. In Rancho Santa Fe when the trees failed to produce the hoped-for railroad ties, the area was subdivided and the trees became so prized for their appearance and drought-resistance that they turned into a hallmark of one of the wealthiest communities in the the United States. Meanwhile farmers had discovered that the blue gum eucalyptus (E. globulus) was useful as a windbreak and it was widely used agriculturally, especially in orange groves to stop the damaging effects of seasonal Santa Ana winds. A few eucalyptus are good in gardens, such as lemongum eucalyptus (E. citriodora) which unlike many others is deep-rooted, and many are ornamental, prize like flame eucalyptus (E. ficifola) for its stunning floral display, or like E. citriodora, for its handsome structure and all are known for ease of cultivation.

  2. the american paper birch is also called white birch Betula papyrifera … is the tradition of 3 birch from Russia?

    • Birch is the national tree of Russia, where seemingly endless forests of these trees cover vast tracts of land. Because of this and because the trees are so beautiful, the birch tree is almost a sacred symbol for Russians. At certain times of year Russians drink the sap, which is believed to have healing qualities. Additionally, besides being ornamental, birch trees and birch wood have many practical uses. Then there is the symbolism of the tree, just as I think of the purple-heather covered moors as the hallmark of my Yorkshire birthplace, so the Russians harken back to the birch tree and remember with fondness the forests that graced their homeland. Perhaps the European white birch (Betula pendula) is the one most beloved Russian species because of its silvery white bark with characteristic black markings. Its special look is similar to our American species, the canoe birch or paper birch (Betula papyrifera), that Indians used for making canoes. Besides B. pendula, there are at least three other species of birch found growing in Russia: B. costata, B. platyphylla, and B. pubescens. All are revered, but not all have white bark. From my own experience I agree with the Russians there is something amazing, perhaps almost spiritual about birch trees, even those with apparently plain gray bark. The smooth gray bark of a birch tree, glimpsed in earliest spring against a patch of freshly sprouting green grass in a forest clearing can impact one’s life forever. The reason that one so often sees birch trees sold or grown in a clump of three is that they are often found in nature growing in a clump and three is a better number for nurseries to grow as a group than, for example, five of them together. I don’t think this habit of sale began in Russia, but I don’t know for sure. If you look at photographs of Russian forests of birch trees usually one will see that most of the trees grow singly but there almost always will be a clump here and there of several birch trees growing together in one close group. I think this became a habitual way to grow silver birch in America because birch trees are tall and narrow and naturally look better growing — if not in a great plantation, then at least in a clump with the trunks angled out from one another in a graceful grouping. There are also several practical reasons for planting these trees in a group: Artistically, three is a good number. Planting three together results in more shade for the roots. Three trees gives one more of the lovely bark to admire without taking up more space, and finally by planting three together they compete with one another, thus they stay smaller and create a more attractive accent in a garden than would one single tall tree.

  3. Plz!!! Don’t start growing birch tree. Their pollen is a great detriment to people with allergy problem. I live in aK and every year people suffer gently!!! Say NOto birch tree!!!!!

  4. lane mckeever

    My gardener topped my birch tree by mistake. Will it grow back? and will it look ok?

    • I live in Santa Cruz, Calif. A British friend gave my wife and I either a White or Silver Birch tree almost twenty years ago. I planted it in the backyard and it has prospered to at least twenty-five feet tall. Although it is very messy with plentiful, small leaves and birchberries, ( I call them), which the finches love which fall like rain after exploding into very fine miniature airplane-shapes, requiring much detailed cleanup since I have a love of rock and succulent beds which as an artist I preen for their asthetic presentation, I have only cut one major vertical limb of what would have been one arm of a “y” shape, I have no regrets, because it is beautiful, attracts birds, and seems very happy in our coastal, Mediterranean climate. Was that a long sentence? By the way, I haven’t specifically watered this tree or the small lawn that surrounds it since we have had semi-regular droughts or water restrictions for the past twenty-something years. Am I lucky or what?

      • I loved this communication from you and am surprised your tree can survive without any particular watering. However, the climate in Santa Cruz is cooler and moister than that in Southern California where I live and where silver birch trees do not do well, though people love them nonetheless. Perhaps your tree’s roots have gone deep and discovered a water table under ground. Yes, you are indeed lucky. I like the sound of your garden. You mentioned you are an artist. Do you attend the Plein Air Convention in Monterey which is in April? http://www.pleinairconvention.com/ I have attended every year until this year due to busy schedule of speaking engagements and broken leg last year. However, I plan to go next year and recommend this grand event that is like a big party of artists having fun doing their thing and learning from each other. The equipment for sale at discount prices is also wonderful. I usually spend a night in Santa Cruz after that with a nephew who lives there and then continue up the coast to San Francisco to visit other family members.

  5. Why does my birch trees look like they are dying I live in so calif itis june

    • If your trees look as if they are dying it may be because they actually are dying. White birch trees need good drainage with plentiful moisture. Despite the best of care and conditions they often fall prey to beetles. Nonetheless, many people love them, but the painful truth is they are not at all well adapted to growing in Southern California. On top of this the heat spell we had in spring added insult to injury. Fall and winter drought followed by severe Santa winds just when the trees were leafing out was enough to kill many birch trees.

  6. no hellp about white birch

    • Well, yes, that’s correct and you are 100% right. When plants are not well adapted to the climate in which they are planted there is “no help!” This is why I advocate growing the plants that grow well in a Mediterranean climate. White Birch trees do not belong in this category. It doesn’t pay to struggle against the odds.

  7. In the city of Trebinje, down on the very south of Bosnia, I have a family house, but I live here in Sarajevo.
    I have seen a lots of birch, ash, chestnut, hornbeam, oak, beech, willows trees in the city, and I have never seen them burned, suffer, dried. The climate is pretty much like south Calif., with very harsh summers, and no frost, only lots of rain from November until March, or April. By the way Sarajevo have even harshiers summer, almost unbearable heat that exceeds 40>c degrees, with little oxigen in the air.
    And I haven’t seen them burned.
    As for Sa. I have seen some Norwegian spruces scorched, as well as Scott’s Pines, but just superficially. The ones that really suffers are Thuyas. They can be so severely damaged by burning sun, almost entirely. Hydrangeas, if not established and just neglected can dry completely. The same stands for Fatsia Japonica, and Passiflora(I’ve lost both of these, here in Sa., long ago in the average Summer heat.)
    In Trebinje, aa for the flowering evergreens there are palms, mostly Phoenix Canariensis, that sometimes can go invasive. But people usually replant them, because palms readily transplants, perhaps because of the root system, which isn’t as much of the woody tissue like deciduous trees, what alows them to regrow rapidly.
    Others are Trachycarpus Fortunei, but these really hates hot weather.
    And, perhaps some Washingtonians.
    As for the Nonflowering plants, there are a lots of Spruces, Pines, Firs. Among most abudants are Italian stone Pines.
    Other conifers are pretty much Cypresses, maybe even some redwoods.

    Back to the birches. I think that major problem you guys in southern California encounter is bad irrigation time. As far as I know, many people there have those automatic systems for irrigation, that are programmed to say, irigate the lawn in the high noon, to 1pm., and again from 3-5pm. etc. That way youre, probably going to release some massive amounts of steam to the air, and that will, basically dehydrate leaves, and they will turn yellow. So, instead irrigate only at the dusk, so upper soil can absorb enough water, and trees won’t get damaged by those vapors.
    I, my self like exotic gardening, as Ph.D. David A. Franco explained in his book:”Palms won’t grow here and other myths”.
    Hope this helps, best regards,

    • Thank you so much for your interesting comment and discussion of plants that grow in your part of Bosnia. From what you describe, it sounds as if your climate is largely a Mediterranean one but due to inland location, summer temperatures particularly are somewhat more extreme than ours. The problem with white birch trees is not caused by watering at noon, but by drought, disease, alkaline irrigation water, planting these trees in climate zones to which they are not adapted and by pest problems—mostly borers. Irrigation systems are seldom set to water overhead at noon. Most irrigation systems water at night, early morning or evening and are low-impact. There are many more drought-resistant trees better adapted to our dry climate with rains mostly in winter and spring. But thanks for your suggestion and for telling us about many plants that will grow in Trebinje and are also grown here.

  8. I too live in Santa Cruz and am looking for a backyard tree to plant. I love the look of a multi-trunk birch. We are one block from the Pacific Ocean so it never gets too hot and the soil seems good and drains well. The site is protected from afternoon sun. The other tree I am considering is a fruitless olive; not as pretty IMO but possibly a better choice overall. Any opinions or other ideas much appreciated!

    • Though white birch grows better in Santa Cruz than in Southern California, taking irrigation into account, the olive is a much better choice. By cutting back the top of the tree when it reaches your desired height and shaping the branches, as they do in Europe, you will end up with a much better-looking tree than most home-grown olive trees in California. I often notice how much more artistic the olive trees look in Spain or Italy even when they are young trees and I think it’s their annual fall pruning which tends to make the trunk and branches thicken.

  9. Kristine Valentine

    I live in Woodland Hills, one of the hottest areas of the San Fernando Valley. Our European White Birch trees are dying, one by one. They’re about 30 years old, so I realize that they’ve probably come to the end of their lifespan. I’ve noticed bronze birch borers near the trees, so they have even more stress than just the lack of water and hot weather. What trees do you recommend to replace the birches? We have a white picket fence surrounded by roses and lavender, with a small lawn in front of the house. The birches were planted in the lawn, on both sides of the walkway to the front door. I’d like something that would give the “feel” of the old birches. I appreciate any help that you can give me.

    • I suggest Sweetshade (Hymenosporum flavum), which will make you the envy of your neighbors, who might never have seen or heard of this tree, though many are growing as street trees in Los Angeles. Sweetshade is from Australia and is a noble tree if you train it in youth. You will have very fragrant flowers now in spring. Also this tree grows well in groves and usually is not too large.

      Early training is important. Good drainage helps as well. Pinch back the side branches frequently when the tree is young. Do the first pinching after bloom then pinch back once every month or two until October. Resume in spring after bloom. (“Pinch” means to clip 3 to six inches of growth, including at least 1 bud, from the tip of every branch. When your young tree has grown to the height you want, also pinch the top so it won’t get taller. (Depending where it grows this might not be necessary.) I have seen these trees stop growing at 10 or 12 feet in height. Others my eventually grow to be 30 feet tall, which I don’t think you want. You can to prevent that by keeping an eye on how your specimens are growing. Once they have reached the width and height you want, then you can keep them to that height by cutting back the tips of their branches and removing any unwanted branches, if necessary. Do not let a tree man lace out this tree, which will ruin it’s shape. This tree naturally grows in the shape of a column and you should aim to keep it that way.

      By the way if it begins growing too big, cut back on the outside in mid-summer, as if it were a hedge, and that will stop or slow growth for a long time.

      Proper pinching back often when the tree is young, as I have described, results in stronger, denser growth. If you neglect this task it’s a very rangy tree with branches that tend to be in threes and have weak crotches that can split, and all the leaves will be on the tips of branches while the rest of the branch will be bare. If, on the other hand, you pinch back the tips in spring (after bloom) about every couple of months when the tree is young and continue in fall then the branches will be strong and you will love this wonderful tree. Please don’t neglect to do this pinching! It can be fun and make you feel good you are doing the right thing. If your garden has strong winds, write again since this is not the best tree for windy conditions.

      These trees are not like silver birches—no other tree is just like white birch— but Hymenosporum flavum have a unique look and character that should blend with what you’ve described.

  10. Hi Pat,
    We live in the San Fernando Valley ( Northridge) and for 25 years, our four birch trees ( white birch) grew beautifully. Now one has branches that are completely brown with no spring greening this year and another which never did grow as tall as the rest, leafed out prettily in spring ; in the last two weeks, however, its leaves have rapidly browned with only a few green branches left. Deep watering has not helped. It has two huge holes at its base but they have been there for a few years with no problems. I see no evidence of bronze borer. I know we’ll have to cut both down; am afraid of the remaining two going the same way. What do you think is the problem and or solutions, if any? Also, any recommendations for replacement trees? Please? Thank you!

  11. Pat,

    Thank you so much for your reply. Today we sadly cut down two of our birches – nothing we did could save them.
    I have been researching online to see what trees would now suit best as replacements, where the birches stood. We have hot summers and extremely windy Santa Ana conditions later in the year, towards fall. Because our home is a “pseudo-Tudor” :-), palm trees and the like will look incongruous. I am looking for a slender, upright tree (like our poor birches) that will be able to withstand the winds and the drought ( yes, tall order, I know). One will be planted on the north side which is the front of our home, on a strip west of the garage; the other on the south side in our backyard. So far, I have come up with Pittosporum and Podocarpus. Please, can you give me your recommendations? Thanks a million, Pat! I so appreciate you taking the time to help.

    • I would avoid pittosporum species due to pest problems. I suggest incense cedar (Calocedrus decrurrens). It is heat-resistant, wind-resistant and drought tolerant. I agree no palm trees!

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