TREES & plants

River birch

The bark of river birch peeling into attractive layers.

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 species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

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
  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area, 
  • Illinois, 
  • North America
Planting Site: 
  • Residential and parks, 
  • Restricted sites
Landscape Uses: 
  • Shade tree, 
  • Specimen
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 (Chicago), 
  • 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
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 

“These plants are cultivars of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits."

City Slicker® river birch (Betula nigra 'Whit XXV'): Dark green foliage that turns bight yellow in fall.  Good drought tolerance.

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

Fox Valley® river birch  (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® river birch (Betula nigra ‘Cully’): Larger, glossy, dark green leaves, nearly white interior peeling bark, more heat tolerant.

Shiloh Splash river birch (Betula nigra 'Shiloh Splash'): A compact form growing 10 feet high and 8 feet wide.  The foliage is variegated and has cream or ivory edges.

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

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


Betula nigra or River birch