TREES & plants

River birch

River birch is a popular, fast-growing native tree for the home landscape. Attractive salmon-pink to reddish-brown bark exfoliates to reveal lighter inner bark. Dark green foliage turns a beautiful buttery yellow in the fall.  This species is resistant to bronze birch borer (BBB).

This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.


Botanical name: 
Betula nigra
All Common Names: 
river birch, red birch
Family (English): 
Family (Botanic): 
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Planting Site: 
  • Residential and parks
  • Restricted sites
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Shade
Size Range: 
  • Medium tree (25-40 feet)
Mature Height: 
30-40 feet
Mature Width: 
20-30 feet
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
  • Moist, well-drained soil
  • Wet soil
Acid Soils: 
  • Prefers
Alkaline Soils: 
  • Intolerant
Salt Spray: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Soil Salt: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Drought Conditions: 
  • Intolerant
Poor Drainage: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
Ornamental Interest: 
  • Spring blossoms
  • Fall color
  • Attractive bark
Season of Interest: 
  • Early winter
  • Mid winter
  • Late winter
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
  • Late fall
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
Shape or Form: 
  • Pyramidal
  • Round
Growth Rate: 
  • Fast
Transplants Well: 
  • Yes
  • Game birds
  • Insect pollinators
  • Small mammals
  • Songbirds
More Information: 

Tree & Plant Care

River birch is drought sensitive and does not like hot, dry summers. Plants benefit with a 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch and supplemental water in dry periods.
Birches are considered  “bleeders”, avoid pruning in late spring before leaves emerge.

Disease, pests and problems

Iron chlorosis is common in high pH soils.
Susceptible to aphids, leaf miners and leaf spots. 

Disease, pest, and problem resistance

Resistant to bronze birch borer
Tolerant of black walnut toxicity

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 7
Common along rivers and streams.

Bark color and texture 

An attractive cream and cinnamon-colored peeling bark and weeping branches.

River birch (Betula nigra)River birch (Betula nigra)photo: John Hagstrom
Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Simple, alternate, 2 to 3 inches long, triangular or wedge-shaped with doubly serrated tooth margins.
Dark green with lighter undersides, turns yellow in fall.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Male flowers are long, slender catkins near tips of stems; female flowers stand upright along same twig.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Cone-like with hairy clusters of winged seeds, ripen in spring.

Cultivars and their differences 

Dura-Heat®  (Betula nigra ‘BNMTF’)Smaller, glossy, olive green leaves, whitish, exfoliating bark, more resistant to aphids.

Fox Valley®   (Betula nigra ‘Little King’):  Dense, 10 to 12 feet high, compact growth habit, branches to the ground, glossy green leaves, exfoliating bark:
Introduced through the Chiacagoland Grows program.

Heritage ™  (Betula nigra ‘Cully’): Larger, glossy, dark green leaves, nearly white interior peeling bark, more heat tolerant.

Summer Cascade   (Betula nigra 'Summer Cascade'):  A weeping form; 6 feet high and 10 feet wide; taller if staked.

Tecumseh Compact®  (Betula nigra ‘Studetec’):  A 10 to 12 foot tree with a rounded compact form and semi-arching branches, cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark.