Aspen & Birch—Distinguishing the Differences | Black Hills Travel Blog

Aspen & Birch—Distinguishing the Differences

  • Aspen & Birch—Distinguishing the Differences
    Aspen & Birch—Distinguishing the Differences
Monday, September 23, 2019
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When visiting the Black Hills, many people instantly notice all the different types of trees. Two types of trees that are abundant in these beautiful hills are aspen and birch. These two trees are commonly mistaken for each other due to their similar appearance. Both species are tall and slender, have white bark, and are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall.  However, there are many differences between the two, and I am thrilled to show you the distinguishing traits of these two beautiful trees.


The aspen is commonly called “quaking aspen” because its leaves quake, or tremble, with just the slightest breeze. Due to this trembling it can be quite loud, creating a crackling sound. The local Native Americans knew they were approaching aspen trees long before they could see them because of this distinct sound.


The birch on the other hand, is commonly called “paper birch” due to its flakey layers that peel off easily into paper curls. Whereas aspen bark hangs tightly to the tree. Many cultures around the world have similar beliefs regarding both the aspen and the birch. Many cultures believed that both trees were capable of driving away evil. Due to this they were often planted near homes.


Both trees have many uses, some of which are no longer commonly known due to western culture.  The most common present day use of aspen is creating a pulp for paper and boxes. Also, due to its lightweight properties, it is used for making crates and furniture. The birch tree is often used to make canoes, interior trim and veneer due to its waterproof properties.  Interestingly enough both trees have been used medicinally as well. 

The Bark

The aspen and birch are similar in size, typically growing to be about 80 feet tall and about 8 inches – 2 feet 7 inches in diameter. As mentioned before both trees have a distinct smooth white bark, however it is not solid white. The aspen bark has a distinct green tint and is marked with black horizontal scars and prominent black knots. The birch is marked with horizontal scars as well, but does not have the eye like scars.

The Leaves

Aspen has heart shaped leaves but birch has oval shaped leaves with tapering tips.

Both trees leaves are a beautiful shade of green and in the fall they turn brilliant tones of yellow but are rarely red. Imagine going on hike or drive through the Black Hills and seeing the beautiful contrast of the trunk and the leaves. Whether in spring, summer or fall you won’t be disappointed with this natural beauty.


Aspens are said to be the largest and oldest living organism in the world because the root system can live for thousands of years. Entire forests of new seedlings continuously sprout from the roots, keeping the colony alive, and even surviving wildfires. The life span of an individual aspen is typically about 100-120 years in the west but in eastern regions they will typically die off within 60 years or less, due to decay.  Birch, on the other hand, only live about 80 years. Both trees create cylindrical flower clusters called catkins, which are pollinated by the wind. The main difference between the flowers of each tree is the birch is monoecious, which means it is able to produce both male and female flowers. This allows the tree to become easily pollinated to create the wing nut shaped seeds. Even though most new birch trees grow from seed, it does have the ability to regenerate sprouts if it has been cut down or burned.  

The next time you’re in the Black Hills, take a closer look at the aspen and birch and you will see what amazing specimens they truly are.


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