The "lady of the forest" is in all her glory this time of year, her pure-white bark is especially lovely as she mingles with spruces and other dark-green evergreens. Unfortunately, the lady -- a nickname for white birch -- is often not nearly as happy in a suburban yard as she is in the forest.
Be careful if you plant this lady. Gardening involves trying to extend the growing season or grow cold-tender plants farther north. Our native white birch has the opposite problem, loving cold winters and cool summers.
Hot weather causes birch to languish, increasing susceptibility to other problems, such as bronze birch borer. This pest bores into the bark, causing whole branches to die back. Keep an eye on the lady because another pest, the birch leafminer, also stands ready for attack. This pest chews inside the leaves, which weakens the tree and increases likelihood of borer attack.
Be careful when you plant a "white birch" that you really know what you are putting in the ground. The lady has a few cousins also sometimes sold as "white birch." Most notable among the cousins are the European white birch and the Japanese white birch.
The European species is widely planted and easily recognized by the large, black, diamond-shaped markings on its white bark. It is popular because its bark turns white at an early age. Young trunks and branches on our native birch are dark, reddish brown. With age, though, bark on European white birch turns black.
The Japanese white birch is perhaps a better choice. This tree grows large, but remains graceful because of its thin branches. The variety Whitespire tolerates adverse weather so it is less likely to be attacked by borers.
If you plant lady of the forest, give it special attention, whether its origins lie in our forests, or those of Europe or Japan. It does not like sites exposed to full sun and hot temperatures. Coddle it with water if it's thirsty in summer. (Impatiens planted at its feet will quickly tell you -- by wilting -- when the soil needs water.) Feed it if it is hungry and keep an eye out for those borers and leafminers.
Birch is not a frail tree in all respects. Like bamboo, the trunks are pliable, so they resist breakage. Trees bowed to the ground by ice storms slowly and gracefully unbend as the sun warms the trunks.
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