The many varieties of birch tree, regardless of species, share similar traits including a medium height of 40 to 50 feet at maturity and the yellowing of leaves in the fall. The most common differences between birch trees are bark colour, optimum growing conditions and disease susceptibility to insects and other pests.
Peeling White Bark
Several birch tree species have white-coloured bark that peels. The paper birch, also known as white birch or canoe birch (Betula papyrifera), starts out with intact brown-coloured bark which eventually becomes white and peeling as the tree matures. Paper birch are widespread in the United States --according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), paper birch trees grow in both northern and southern climates.
Likewise, the Crimson Frost birch (Betula platyphylla var. szechuanica x Betula pendula) has peeling white bark with cinnamon-coloured tones and dark red leaves that change into a variety of colours ranging from crimson to orange-yellow in the fall. Crimson Frost birch trees thrive in wet soil but can also grow well in heavy claylike soil, according to the USDA. Disease susceptibility is not known for this variety.
The Jaquemonti birch or Whitebarked Himalayan (Betula jacquemontii) also has peeling white bark. They are common in the eastern region of the United States and are very susceptible to the pest called bronze birch borer. (References 2, Table 1)
Non-Peeling White Bark
A native of the northeastern region of the United States, the grey birch (Betula populifolia) has a chalky white bark that stays intact. It is vulnerable to both types of birch tree pests -- bronze birch borer and birch leafminer. The European white birch or silver birch (Betula pendula) is similar to the grey birch in being very susceptible to insects and has a white bark that does not peel but turns black in colour as the tree gets older.
Whitespire birch (Betula platyphylla japonica) is another type of birch tree with white intact bark. As most birches with white barks grow better under cooler conditions, the whitespire is unique in being able to survive in warmer, more southern climates than other birch trees with white bark, according to the USDA. Whitespire is vulnerable to birch leafminer but is not as susceptible to the other birch insect pest, the bronze birch borer.
Not all birch trees have white bark; in fact some birch trees display colourful bark. The river birch or red birch (Betula nigra) has bark that is initially salmon in colour but changes to a dark red to dark brown as the tree gets older. In general, it does not have serious disease issues. It grows in warmer and wetter conditions along the Mississippi River and in other southern regions of the United States though it also grows well in cooler and drier regions.
The sweet birch, also known as the black birch or cherry Birch (Betula lenta), has a very dark brown bark; the USDA describes it as an "almost black" colour. This variety is native to the Northeast region of the United States and is resistant to the birch leafminer and only somewhat susceptible to bronze birch borer.
Found in both the Great Lakes area and the Northeast, yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) start out with yellow to orange-coloured bark and end up with a peeling red-brown bark as the tree matures. Yellow birches need cool and moist soil to grow and can survive better in shadier conditions than other types of birch trees. The yellow birch is resistant to birch leafminer and moderately vulnerable to the bronze birch borer disease.