Birch vs Aspen: What's the Difference?
Where do we come from? What is the meaning of life? Is it an aspen tree or a birch? These are the questions that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time. Without a doubt, both are beautiful trees, loved by nature photographers, hikers and all seekers of fall color around the country. But what is the difference? Is it the way they taste? The sound that each makes when they fall in the forest and no one is there to hear their cries? Let's dig a little and see if we can find out.
It’s a beautiful sight and one many of us are familiar with either from personal experience or a gorgeous photograph: pearly white bark, vibrant yellow leaves shivering in the sunlight, branches extended to the bright blue sky above. This view can be a real treat as you cruise around mountain bends, explore a national park, or wander through an art gallery during a night out on the town.
But, what kinds of trees provide that iconic beauty?
Often, we associate yellow leaves and white bark with aspen trees. But, what can be hard to tell out the window of your car is whether they are aspen or birch trees, which actually have a very similar appearance to aspen trees.
While both trees grow to great heights, have the appearance of white bark from afar, and turn a gorgeous yellow in the fall, their similarities stop there. A keen eye (or adept dendrologist!) can spot the differences between these two unique trees if you simply know what to look for.
Do You Know Where You Are?
A really easy way to tell the difference between birch and aspen trees is to locate yourself on a map.
Aspen trees are found across most of North America, from Canada all the way down to Mexico, so that’s not necessarily going to narrow down your options. Birch trees, however, are generally only found in the eastern United States and parts of Canada. So, if you’re out West, the golden leaves waving at you probably belong to an aspen.
If you still aren’t sure after you’ve done some geography, then it’s time to get a closer look at the specific details of the tree.
Leaves Are Falling All Around
Take this chance to collect a fallen leaf or two; they’ll help you identify what kind of tree you’re looking at!
While the leaves of the aspen and birch trees look a little similar, there are several key differences. The white birch has a kind of spear-shaped leaf with a double-serrated edge, whereas the aspen leaf is more heart-shaped with small, rounded teeth. A longer leaf indicates a birch tree, while a stouter leaf belongs to an aspen.
Though helpful, this technique really only works if you have leaves to look at. If it’s winter time and the leaves have fallen, you’ll have to use other parts of the tree to determine whether the tree in question is an aspen or a birch.
Junk In The Trunk
If leaves are absent, take a look at the tree’s trunk. While their bark might seem the same from a distance, up close their color and markings can be used to tell the two apart.
The bark of the birch tree is truly white, while the aspen tree has a distinct green tint just beneath its whitish exterior.
The texture of the bark also drastically differs between the two types of tree. Birch bark will hang off the tree like pieces of paper, easily peeling away when pulled on. Aspen bark, on the other hand, will be tightly wrapped around the trunk.
In other words, if you can pull off the bark and use it for crafts like picture framing and decorative furniture, it’s a birch tree! In fact, birch has historically been used for basket making, canoe building, and even has distinct medicinal properties.
Additionally, both trees have different marks on their trunks. Aspens have knots that resemble eyes while birch have more horizontal markings all over the trunk. These markings are native to the plant and not necessarily a result of scarring from previous branches, which is often the case with aspen trees.
Between distinct leaf shapes and very different bark textures and markings, you should be able to easily tell the difference between a birch and aspen tree with a little up close examination.
If you want to get really specific, there are also some key similarities and differences between the way aspen and birch trees grow.
Both trees prefer moist soil and are not fans of being in the shade. Birch trees can thrive in partial sunlight, but aspen trees require full sun. These trees need sunlight -- and lots of it. How else are their beautiful golden leaves supposed to shimmer in the afternoon sun?
Birch trees require loosely packed soil because they have shallow roots, whereas aspen trees tolerate a variety of types of soil. So, while each tree is picky about certain things, they balance each other out by being adaptable in other ways. If you’ve got a knack for growing things, these similarities and differences can be the key to identifying each type of tree!
Nothing Else Matters
These two trees are certainly easy to confuse with one another. For many years I thought that I was photographing birch trees in one area in Washington based on the geographical location, however, it appears they were aspens the entire time! In fact, I am not sure I have even photographed a stand of birch!
Their biggest similarity of all? They’re both gorgeous trees. Being able to identify them simply helps you determine their uses, how they fit into the landscape, and even how they might match the interior of your home in furniture, artwork, or fine art nature photography. Now, you’ll be able to stop generalizing and give each tree the admiration it deserves the next time you pass one by.