Tell-tale smooth, yellow-gray (straw colored) peeling bark that looks like paper with small horizontal lines all over is a sure sign of a yellow birch. On older trees you ll see broken plates of bark. You can also look for the dangling fruit of the birch, called a "catkin." It's easy to spot as it hangs from the bare tree in winter. It measures about 1 inch long and looks like a tiny, long and flimsy pine cone. In the spring, the catkin will open and give off pollen. The catkin will develop winged seeds that will ripen in the fall and spread in the wind. Yellow birch twigs are light brown and shiny with a faint smell of wintergreen. The leaves of the yellow birch are alternate on the branch and oval in shape. Leaves have both large and small teeth along the edges and measure 3-5 inches. In the summer, leaves are dull, dark green on the upper side and paler on the underside. Look for a brilliant yellow to lead you to the yellow birch in fall as the leaves turn color. Check out A Tree's True Color to learn more about fall leaf colors.
Yellow birch grow in the northern half of Wisconsin on rich, moist soils in upland areas. You'll find them as far south as Sheboygan, Sauk and Grant counties growing in shaded forests along with beeches and maples. Their wood is heavy, strong, hard and takes a good polish. It is used for flooring, interior finish, veneers, furniture, and small wooden toys. It also makes excellent firewood.