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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.

Botanical name: 
Betula nigra
All Common Names: 
River birch, Red birch
Family (English): 
Birch
Family (Botanic): 
Betulaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
Foliage: 
  • Deciduous (foliage falls off)
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 3
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Growth Rate: 
  • Medium
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
Tolerances: 
  • Wet sites
  • Occasional flooding
  • Road salt
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
  • Moist, well-drained soil
  • Wet soil
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
Size Range: 
  • Large tree (more than 40 feet)
Shape or Form: 
  • Pyramidal
  • Rounded
Landscape Uses: 
  • Windbreak
  • Specimen
  • Shade
  • Parkway/street
Time of Year: 
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
More Information: 

Size and Form

40 to 70 feet high and 40 to 60 feet wide; rounded shape at maturity

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.
River birch can be relatively short-lived.

Disease, pests and problems

Iron chlorosis in high pH soils.
Susceptible to aphids 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.

Attracts birds & butterflies

Seeds are favorite of many birds. 
Host to the tiger swallowtail, mourning cloak butterflies.

Bark color and texture 

An attractive 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.
Inconspicuous

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Cone-like with hairy clusters of winged seeds, ripens 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.