The grey birch (Betula populifolia) is a distinct species belonging to the Betulaceae tree family that also includes alders, hornbeams and paper birches, while the poplar genus (Populus) belonging to the Salicaceae family is made up of aspens and cottonwoods. The leaves of both species are similar and both produce fruit contained in catkins, but the growth range, habits and other characteristics of each are distinctly different.
Found exclusively in the New England states and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, the grey birch has white bark that does not separate or peel away as the trees age. The bark is also marked by rows of black chevrons, or v-shaped ridges, at the bases of branches along with other narrow lines that run around the tree. Its toothed and tapering leaves measure from 1 to 4 inches and are borne on warty twigs from one of several trunks that grow to a maximum of roughly 30 feet.
Growth Habit Differences
Gray birch trees grow in mixed forests of other deciduous trees as well as conifers and sometimes protect and provide shade for the seedlings of larger trees with longer lifespans. It is also often seen taking over cleared or burnt areas or abandoned properties. The tree's trunks are very flexible and often bend without breaking under a heavy load of snow. Poplars are also known to take over cleared areas, often creating entire forests, but unlike the grey birch, poplars grow from a single trunk. Their leaf stalks are longer, and their bark is usually a greyish-green that darkens with age.
Types of Poplars
The poplar tree genus is composed of several species of aspens and cottonwoods, some of which occupy a vaster territorial range than the grey birch. Quaking, or trembling, aspen (Populus tremuloides), bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) are found in the Northeastern region of the United States and into Canada. Both the black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) and eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) are fast-growing trees that get their names from the fact that the mature seeds resemble tufts of cotton.
Other types of poplars include the Lombardy (Populus nigra), which grows in a tall spire shape and is often planted in rows as a windbreak, and the more recently developed hybrid poplar, a cross between the eastern cottonwood and Lombardy poplar, that grows from 5 to 8 feet per year. The white poplar (Populus alba) is native to Europe but has been naturalised in the Northern United States. It has white woolly leaves, buds and twigs and smooth white bark that darkens and thickens at the base of the tree. The swamp cottonwood (Populus heterophylla) is found mainly in the Southeastern United States and has dark grey, deeply ridged bark and very wide, heart-shaped fuzzy leaves.
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