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Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society

Focusing on native plants and conservation in North Idaho

 Paper Birch

Species profile by Wendy Aeschliman

Common Name(s): Paper birch, white birch, silver birch, canoe birch.

Scientific Name: Betula papyrifera  (Papyrifera means "paper-bearing" referring to the papery bark.)

Plant Symbol:  BEPA, Bepa.

General Info: Often a several-stemmed deciduous tree, 30-40 m tall.  Fast growing.  Crown loosely pyramidal when young.  Develops a relatively short open crown with upward-angled branches with nodding tips.

Native/ Non-native:  Native.

Ecology:  Widespread and common at low to mid elevations in moist montane woods.  Unable to withstand either droughts or saturated soils.  Shade intolerant; extremely frost tolerant.

Range: Alaska, Canada, northern half of US.

Flowers: Male and female catkins borne on same tree, appearing before leaves.  Female catkins are thinner and shorter than male catkins.

Fruits: Small winged nutlets in erect female catkins that fall apart when ripened.

Leaves:  Oval with pointed tips.  Edges are coarse, irregular, and double toothed, 5 to 9 cm long, pale green, turning yellow in autumn.

Bark:  Reddish to coppery brown when young.  Matures to white or cream, with conspicuous dark, horizontally elongated lines (lenticels).  Peels into sheets exposing a reddish orange inner bark that blackens with age, deeply fissured and black at the base of old trees.  It is important NOT to peel the bark off of living trees, as it can scar and actually kill trees!

Landscaping Uses:  A beautiful and commonly used landscape tree with striking coloration, summer and winter. It is a desirable ornamental planted around homes and public buildings.


  • Rarely lives more than 140 years.

  • Hybridizes extensively with other birches, especially, in northern Idaho, the water birch (Betula occidentalis).

  • Provides valuable browse for wildlife such as snowshoe hare, deer and moose.  Seeds attract many birds.

  • Readily sprouts from cut stumps, and re-sprouts after fires.


Resources/ Links:

Field Guide to Forest Plants of Northern Idaho (Patterson, Neiman, Tonn), 1985 USDA – Forest Service

Plants of Southern Interior British Colombia and the Inland Northwest (Parish, Coupe, Lloyd), 1996

Above:  Crown of a healthy birch tree in early summer.

Conspicuous horizontal lenticels in birchbark:


Below: It is important not to peel bark off of living trees... let it come off by itself!  Note the reddish orange tint to inner bark:


Below: Double toothed leaves.


Below: Often the birch bark is left after the interior rots away.


Photos by Wendy Aeschliman