Betula alleghaniensis (Yellow Birch)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Betulaceae (Birch)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, shade, sun; hardwood forest
Bloom season:May
Plant height:50 to 85 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACU MW: FAC NCNE: FAC
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: spike

[photo of catkins past pollination] Male and female flowers are borne separately on the same tree (monoecious), in clusters called catkins. Male catkins are in groups of 1 to 3 at tips of 1 year old twigs, pendulous in flower, 2¼ to 4½ inches long, developing in fall as a slender spike of tightly appressed scales and opening up the following spring. Female catkins are erect and stout, cylindrical, ¾ to 1½ inches long from new, spur-like lateral twigs on the same branch as the males.

Leaves and bark: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate and simple in pairs on short, spur-like lateral twigs, and singly on the new, elongating terminal branchlets. The blade is lance-elliptic to egg-shaped, 2 to 4¼ inches long, 1¼ to 2½ inches wide, pointed at the tip, the base rounded to somewhat heart-shaped, on a ¼ to 2/3 inch hairy stalk. Edges are double-toothed, upper surface dark green and sparsely hairy becoming smooth, lower surface lighter green with hairs on veins and with tufts in vein axils.

[photo of twigs] Twigs are greenish brown to reddish or purplish brown with scattered lenticels (pores), new growth hairy becoming mostly hairless and shiny the second year. Twigs have a wintergreen odor when broken, with a wintergreen flavor as well.

[photo of trunk] Bark on younger stems and branches is bronze or yellowish brown, shiny with large, rough horizontal lenticels, older bark peeling in thin, curly strips, basal trunk bark reddish brown, breaking up into coarse, shaggy plates. Trunks can get up to 36 (48) inches dbh.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of developing fruit] Female catkins become erect, oval to egg-shaped, cone-like clusters, ¾ to 1 inch long, of winged nutlets each around 1/8 inch long, green drying to brown.


While Yellow Birch is fairly common to much of Minnesota's eastern hardwood forests and can attain both great age and size, it is surprisingly unfamiliar to many Minnesotans who may readily recognize it as a birch - but which one? While Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) may be somewhat reddish colored on younger branches, its older bark is distinctly white and typically chalky textured. The bark on Heart-leaved Birch (B. cordifolia) is also consistently whiter and its leaves are heart-shaped at the base. River Birch (B. nigra), which is only found in floodplain forests of the lower Mississippi, does have coarse, platy bark on its lower trunk like Yellow Birch, but its younger stems have have very loose, large papery sheets, often reddish brown and chalky textured. The yellowish brown to bronze bark on younger yellow birch branches is distinctively shiny and, when shedding, the strips are very narrow and papery thin. The wintergreen odor and taste of young broken twigs is also unique from all other Minnesota birches, though Sweet Birch (B. lenta), an eastern species not found in Minnesota, shares this trait. In spite of its fairly broad site tolerance and geographic range in Minnesota, it is rarely if ever used or seen in urban landscape plantings.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Anoka, Hennepin, Ramsey and Wright counties.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Mina - Andover
on: 2018-03-20 12:55:10

On my street there is a birch tree with maple leaves growing on it. And there is a maple tree that has really dark purple leaves on it (purple on the top and green on the bottom) it is really strange. If anyone could tell me what these trees are I would be grateful. We theorize that a maple trees roots somehow grew into the birch trees roots. If anyone could correct me on that I would be grateful. Thx.

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2018-03-20 13:03:50

Mina, trees do not hybridize through their root systems as you theorized - a birch and maple will not cross paths like that. It may be neither, but a third species with maple-like leaves. Look at leaves on the trees page for other ideas. The one with purple leaves is probably a cultivar - check your local garden center.

Posted by: J. Swenson - Embarrass Mountain on the Mesabi Range, MN
on: 2019-02-07 14:30:13

Moist areas but not abundant.

Posted by: Z.
on: 2019-08-15 16:38:50

I'm a little late to the conversation between Mina and K. Chayka, but I wonder if the tree Mina described as "a birch tree with maple leaves growing on it" is actually the paperbark maple, Acer griseum. They have peely bark like birches (though not white like many birches) and are hardy to zone 4 according to various search results.

Posted by: Jon Nicholson - New Hartford Twp., just west of Dakota, in Winona Co.
on: 2022-10-06 13:29:55

Several large yellow birch (trunks appx. 1' in diameter) growing on a north-facing hillside, calcareous soil.

Posted by: Andy - Minneapolis
on: 2023-06-01 07:36:00

One of these appears to be growing right next to the sidewalk in the shade of a bur oak. The leaves are 5.25" long, 2.5" wide--which made me think it's not a yellow birch. However, some sites (DNR & UMN) say the leaves can be 5" long. The leaf shape matches. Also, the leaves have a definite wintergreen aroma when crushed. Not sure if it transplants well, but I'll give it a try. It's only about 2' tall right now.

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