Is That a Birch Tree or Aspen Tree?

birch tree

Birch or Aspen trees? Photo via Flickr.

A Birch tree and an Aspen tree look similar, especially during the winter without leaves.  Can you tell them apart?  

Whenever I go hiking with my family I like to bring along Jake’s Nature Guide: Rocky Mountains to help me identify the common trees.  One of the trees that is common and I am familiar with are Aspen trees.  However, during the winter when we go hiking it is hard to identify it because the bark of an Aspen tree and a birch tree are similar.  Here are some hints to help you tell them apart.

 birch tree, aspen tree

This is a grove of Aspen trees. Note there are no horizontal lines all over the bark, but there are old scars and knots. Photo via Flickr.

Bark of Aspen and Birch Tree

Aspen – the bark is greenish white and smooth.  It stays the same white color its entire life.

Birch – the bark of young trees is a chalky white, but as it ages it becomes furrowed and brown.

Peel the bark – The bark of birch trees can easily peel back and off the tree like paper.  The bark of Aspen trees does not peel off.

birch tree

Look at the small horizontal markings all over the trunk of these Birch trees. Photo via Flickr.

Look at the markings on the trunk – Both trees have marks on their trunks, but they differ.  Aspens tend to have scars or knots (which look like eyes) on the bark.  Birch have more horizontal markings all over the trunk that are not associated with any previous branches or scarring.

Leaves of Aspen and Birch Tree

Aspen – the leaves are heart shaped to rounded and are about 2 to 2 1/2 inches long.  They look broader or fatter than Birch leaves.  The edges are finely serrated or toothed.

birch tree

A birch leaf is longer than an Aspen leaf. The edges are more roughly serrated or toothed. Photo via Flickr.

Birch – the leaves are roughly serrated or toothed on the edges and are about 3 inches long in a long pointed shape.

birch tree

This is an Aspen leaf. Look how broad it is and edges are finely serrated, not like the Birch leaves, which have bigger teeth on the edges of the leaf.  Photo via Flickr.

Look at the shape of the leaves – Aspen leaves are shorter and rounder with smooth edges.  On the other hand Birch leaves are a bit longer with rough or serrated edges.

Where Do They Grow

Aspen – these are among the most widespread trees, especially in the Rocky Mountains.  They grow from low to high elevation and can often be found growing thick in areas after a burn, avalanche, or other disturbance.

Birch – they grow in moist lowland forests and in floodplains.  They are generally in northern Idaho and north-eastern Montana.

Where are you – there are no birch trees growing naturally in the lower Rocky Mountains.  If you are high up in elevation then it is an Aspen.  If you are low down in a floodplain or shady area in the northern Rocky Mountains, then it could be a Birch.

It can be difficult to initially tell apart an Aspen and Birch.  But, by following these few pointers I hope that you will be able to figure it out, even during the winter.  You can always bring along the great book, Jake’s Nature Guide: Rocky Mountains, on your outings to help you identify the common species of the Rockies.

ANSWER – By the way, the photo of the trees at the top of the page are Birch trees.  If you look closely you can see the many, small horizontal lines on the trunks of the trees.