River Birch

River Birch

river birch

River Birch (Betula nigra) is a beautiful tree that grows up to 50 feet tall and is shaped like a pyramid. Often this tree is planted in a grouping or as a multi-stemmed tree. Its leaves, which are 1.5 to 3.5 inches long, are arranged alternately on the tree. The photo of the tree is from the Arbor Day Foundation website.

This tree has unique bark that peels off the tree trunk, like paper, when it is young. The bark becomes darker and less peels off as it matures. Birch trees have catkins - a long, scaly, brown pendulum of many flowers held together tightly. Catkins on a river birch are 1.5 inches long. 

The many varieties of river birch allow you to get the characteristics you prefer.  'Heritage' is one of the most common varieties that grows faster, has larger, glossier leaves, and is more disease resistant than the straight species. It also has a more intriguing, salmon-colored, bark. 'Dura-heat' is another good choice for Nebraska as it is more heat tolerant than the straight species. If you don't have room for the height of a river birch tree, a few dwarf varieties to consider include 'Trost's Dwarf', 'Fox Valley', or 'Little King'.

River birch trees are typically planted as a specimen tree or in a clump. This tree is ideal for areas that are low or have poor drainage because, as the name implies, river birch trees like to be in wet locations. This tree can tolerate dry locations but does better in moist soil. They must be planted in full sun, as they don't tolerate shade. River birch trees should be pruned in the fall; if they are pruned in the spring, they will "bleed" or loose large amounts of sap.

According to the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), river birch sap can be used to make beer or vinegar and the wood is used for furniture, toys, woodenware, and fuel. Historically, people chewed leaves to treat dysentery and the bark was used for stomach problems. The NRCS also states that wildlife enjoy river birch trees as turkey and grouse like the seeds and deer feed on the leaves.

River birch is a great tree for any landscape setting. The bark provides interest during any season of the year. The tree is ideal for an acreage because of its beauty as well as the draw to wildlife such as deer and turkeys. The river birch may be the plant solution for a problem spot with wet soil or where water tends to pool, as it likes wet roots. The photo of the River Birch Catkins on the right is from Steven J. Baskauf.

river birch catkins
The photo of the River Birch Catkins on the right is from Steven J. Baskauf.
Nicole Stoner

For the August plant of the month, Nicole Stoner, UNL Extension, continues her 3-part series on trees for low-lying, wet locations in the landscape. These three trees include Bald Cypress (July), River Birch (August), and Swamp White Oak (September).