Plant of the Week: Gray Birch

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Author: 
John Gunderson
Photo by Friends of the High LineThe elegant gray birch can be found growing throughout the High Line. Photo by Friends of the High Line.

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

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Betula populifolia, or gray birch, is a small deciduous tree native to the northeastern United States and Canada. Reaching a height of 30 feet, it is often multi-trunked with an irregular and open crown of slender branches. Gray birch is one of the most elegant and easily recognized trees on the High Line, displaying chalky white bark punctuated by distinct black triangular markings just below the branch collar.

In its native habitat, gray birch can be found flourishing in a variety of conditions. This adaptive tree thrives in sterile, rocky, heavy soils, but is equally at home in moist open woodlands. Betula populifolia serves as a valuable nurse plant in the wild, providing protection to longer-lived and more dominant native tree seedlings. This allows other valuable species to flourish in sites that would otherwise be inhospitable. Considered a pioneer species, it is often found growing along abandoned railroad tracks and other disturbed sites where other trees have a hard time establishing themselves.

Commercially, the semi-hard wood of the gray birch is commonly used in the production of high-grade finishing plywood, furniture, sewing spools, and musical drum casings. Historically, the sap was harvested in springtime for the production of birch beer, a carbonated sweet beverage reminiscent of root beer.

Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’ is a cultivar of gray birch that was selected and introduced in 1983 by Edward R. Hasselkus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

WHERE TO SEE THIS PLANT
The striking chalky white bark of Betula populifolia can be found throughout the High line.

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