How to Care for Gray Birch Trees Like a Pro

<p>Nadya So / Getty Images</p>

Nadya So / Getty Images

Gray birch is a fast-growing, medium-sized North American native tree that stands out for its attractive color-changing bark, long-lasting catkins, and slender silhouette.

This adaptable type of birch tree is easy to grow in full sun or part shade. It tolerates most soils but prefers wetter locations and temperatures that aren’t too high.

Common Name 

Gray Birch, Grey Birch

Botanical Name 

Betula populifolia



Plant Type 

Deciduous tree, Perennial

Mature Size 

20-40 ft. tall, 10-20 ft. spread

Sun Exposure 

Full, Partial

Soil Type 

Loam, Sand, Clay

Soil pH 

Acidic, Neutral

Hardiness Zones

3 - 7 (USDA)

Native Area 

North America

Gray Birch Care

Here are the main care requirements for easy-to-grow gray birch trees:

  • Position in full sun or partial shade.

  • Plant in a cool and moist site with little competition from other species.

  • Water regularly in dry sites during the growing season.

  • Mulch to retain moisture and cool soil.

  • Grows in most soil types, from poor to loamy.

  • Fertilizer is not a typical requirement.


Gray birch trees do best in a partial shade location. Receiving morning sun means their foliage will look the most impressive. These trees can handle a full sun position, especially in cooler regions, but avoid planting in a full shade location.


One of the biggest advantages of gray birch trees is their ability to grow in most soils. For this reason, some enthusiasts refer to the species as the ‘poverty birch’. They can thrive in poor, infertile, rocky soils, rich loamy varieties, and heavy clay. They do prefer a well-drained but moist site.


While gray birch trees can handle occasional periods of dryness, they do best in consistently moist soils. They have a shallow root system and don’t appreciate extended droughts or high temperatures.

Your birch tree won't need supplemental watering in a naturally moist site with sufficient rainfall. If the site is drier, watering deeply over a few hours once a week during the growing season is recommended. An amount of 8 to 18 inches should be sufficient.

The moisture levels are sufficient when the soil can form into a ball in your hand rather than crumbling. Mulching around the tree base also helps to conserve water.

Temperature and Humidity

The gray birch isn’t a tree to plant in hot, sultry southern states. This species does best in cooler climates where temperatures are unlikely to exceed 75°F and humidity levels aren’t too high.Mulching around the tree base also helps to keep the soil consistently cool.


Landscape trees such as the gray birch rarely need supplemental nutrients to thrive.

Only apply fertilizer for this species if a soil test reveals there is a particular nutrient deficiency. If you are fertilizing, use a slow-release formula in late fall or early spring, avoiding application when the ground is frozen.

Fertilizing in the summer or early fall can cause late growth that won’t harden off in time for the cold winter months.


A big advantage of the gray birch is that it does not require heavy pruning. Excessive pruning—more than 25% of the canopy—can be detrimental to the health of the tree. Too much light getting down to the soil can increase soil temperatures and decrease moisture levels—something you don’t want for a gray birch.

If you do need to prune, it should just be to remove any broken, dying, or dead branches in the late summer or fall.  Avoid pruning from May to the end of July. This is when bronze birch borers are in flight and these pests are attracted to fresh cuts made after pruning.

Propagating Gray Birch

Propagating gray birch trees by rooting branch cuttings is tricky but not impossible. If you want to try this technique, being mindful of the low success rate, try following the steps below:

  1. Take an 8-inch cutting using sterile pruning shears from a branch tip with healthy new growth. Cut below a leaf node (the lump on the stem where a leaf grows from).

  2. Keep any leaves growing on the top half of the cutting and remove the leaves on the bottom few inches.

  3. As an optional step, dip the base of the cutting in rooting hormone to increase the chance of it taking root.

  4. Plant the cutting in a well-draining, moist potting mix.

  5. Loosely cover the pot and cutting with a clear plastic bag. This helps retain a beneficially moist environment.

  6. Position the pot in a spot that receives bright but indirect light, and that is away from drafts.

  7. Ensure the soil remains evenly moist without being soggy.

  8. If successful, the cutting should take root within eight weeks.

  9. Once the cutting has fully taken root and remains securely in the soil when you tug, it is ready for transplanting.

  10. Transfer the cutting to its permanent location; try not to damage the roots.

  11. Keep the transplant evenly moist for the next two months. The propagation technique has succeeded if you see new growth emerging from the cutting.

How to Grow Gray Birch From Seed

Growing gray birch from seed is a more reliable way to produce a new tree than propagating from cutting. To attempt this technique, try following the steps below:

  1. Collect the seeds from catkins as they turn from green to brown in the fall.

  2. Stratify the seeds for at least one month in a refrigerator or unheated garage to break their dormancy and prepare them for germination.

  3. Sow the seeds in a container of rich potting soil.

  4. Cover seeds lightly with a shallow layer of soil and dampen with water.

  5. Move the container to a warm spot where it receives bright but indirect light, and keep the soil evenly moist. Keeping in a cold frame helps provide an ideal germination environment.

  6. Within a few weeks, you should see signs of germination.

  7. Thin out the seedlings as necessary, aiming to select the strongest-looking individuals.

  8. When the seedlings are strong enough for handling, prick individuals out and put them into their own pots.

  9. Keep them in the cold frame for their first winter.

  10. Transplant the successful seedling to its outdoor position after the last frosts in the spring.


Watering deeply and mulching the tree base in late fall helps preserve moisture and maintain consistent soil temperatures around the roots. Additional watering may be required if you experience a dry winter, but don't leave the soil soggy.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Bronze birch borer infestations can be a problem for gray birch trees. An infestation will result in chlorotic leaves, leaf drop, and the death of upper branches on the tree. Without insecticidal treatment, infestations can eventually kill the tree.

Fortunately, the gray birch is not as bothered by this pest as some birch species, and healthy trees are less likely to suffer damage than stressed and weak ones. There is also a cultivar, Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire Senior’, which is particularly resistant to these insects.

Avoid planting your gray birch in soils with high alkaline pH levels—this can also lead to chlorosis (a yellowing of leaves that would normally be green). Also, watch out for leaf miner attacks (these burrowing larvae are treatable with insecticides) and cankers (infected, dead areas on branches).

Frequently Asked Questions

Is gray birch a good tree for home landscapes?

While the gray birch is relatively short-lived—rarely living beyond 50 years—it is an excellent medium-sized tree for home landscapes. It doesn’t get too large, is fast-growing, grows in poor soils, and requires minimal maintenance.

What is gray birch used for?

This birch tree has gorgeous fall foliage, and the white, non-peeling bark darkens as it ages, making it an attractive ornamental specimen. This fast-growing species is also helpful for acting as a “nurse tree” for large, long-lived and slow-growing trees that require protection while establishing. Gray birch trees are often used as succession trees as they easily and quickly establish on bare ground that has been burned or cleared.

What is the difference between gray birch and white birch?

The gray birch and the American white birch (also known as the paper birch tree) are both North American native species. While easily confused, there are some key differences to look out for. Paper birch has peeling bark, and the gray birch bark is non-peeling. The leaves of the grey birch are more triangular than oval, the male catkins grow in pairs rather than groups of four, and it is a much more compact tree. Paper birch trees can reach 80 feet, whereas the gray birch typically tops out at 30 feet tall.

Read the original article on The Spruce.