River Birch

Betula nigra

Description & Overview

Excellent for wet soil conditions. Beautiful exfoliating cinnamon-brown bark exposes the pink inner bark. Resistant to bronze birch borer. River birch is also known as Black Birch, Red Birch, and Water Birch.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 40-70 feet
Mature Spread: 40-60 feet
Growth Rate: Moderate
Growth Form: Broadly pyramidal tree, single or multistem
Light Requirements: Full Sun
Site Requirements: Adaptable to many sites, struggles in alkaline soil
Flower: Monoecious, catkin
Bloom Period: April-May
Foliage: Dark Green
Fall Color: Golden Yellow
Fruit Notes: Minute nutlet borne in catkins, released in spring, reliable annual seed production

Suggested Uses:

River Birch makes an excellent specimen tree in spaces large enough for them to reach their full size. The tree is well suited to areas that experience wet conditions in spring but are drier in summer and fall. Its bark makes an attractive point of interest during the growing season and during the winter months. It also functions well for erosion control in wetter sites.

Wildlife Value:

The seeds are consumed by birds and small mammals. Watch for Ruffed Grouse, Greater Prairie Chicken, Pine Siskin, Redpolls, Purple Finch, and Black-capped Chickadees.

Beavers feed on the wood and bark and use the branches to construct their lodges and dams. White-tailed deer and rabbits are known to browse the foliage and twigs.

RIver Birch is a host plant for a substantial number of moths and the like. These include Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), Colorful Zale (Zale minerea), Twin-spotted Sphinx (Smerinthus jamaicensis), Unicorn Caterpillar (Schizura unicornis), The Brother (Raphia frater), Morning Glory Prominent (Schizura ipomoeae), Alien Probole (Probole alienaria), Chocolate Prominent (Peridea ferruginea), Hollow-spotted Plagodis moth (Plagodis alcoolaria), Sharp-lined Yellow (Sicya macularia), Brown-shaded Carpet moth (Venusia comptaria), Toothed Brown Carpet moth (Xanthorhoe lacustrata), Small-eyed Sphinx (Paonias myops), Rose Hooktip (Oreta rosea), Spring Cankerworm moth (Paleacrita vernata), Lycophotia moth (Lycophotia phyllophora), Gray Furcula (Furcula cinerea), Bridled Arches moth (Lacinipolia lorea), Hermina Pinion (Lithophane hemina), Arched Hooktip moth (Drepana arcuata), Elm Sphinx (Ceratomia amyntor), Scallop moth (Cepphis armataria), Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), Io moth (Automeris io), Promethea Silkmoth (Callosamia promethean), Yellow-dusted Cream moth (Cabera erythemaria), Four-barred Gray (Aethalura intertexta), Radcliffe’s Dagger moth (Acronicta radcliffei), Ovate Dagger moth (Acronicta ovata), Cottonwood Dagger (Acronicta lepusculina), Unmarked Dagger moth (Acronicta innotata), Eclipsed Oak Dagger moth (Acronicta inclara), Distinct Quaker (Achatia distincta), Dark Acrolophus (Acrolophus morus), River Birch Dagger moth (Acronicta betulae), American Dagger moth (Acronicta americana), Tawny Pug moth (Eupithecia ravocostaliata), Black-headed Birch Leaffolder (Ascleris logiana), Striped Birch Pyralid moth (Ortholepis pasadamia), Large Tolype moth (Tolype velleda), and Clemon’s Sphinx (Sphinx luscitiosa).

Maintenance Tips:

If River Birch must be pruned, do so during summer or winter when the sap is not flowing. Pruning in spring will result in heavy, messy sap flow out of the wounds.

We invite you to check out the Arborist For Hire lookup at the Wisconsin Arborist Association website to find an ISA Certified Arborist near you.


Although it is an adaptable and tough tree, River Birch can develop chlorosis on more alkaline sites and best performance is observed where soil pH is 6.5 or below. In areas with excessively high alkalinity, consider using Bur Oak or Chinkapin Oak as an alternative. It is resistant (and possibly immune) to Bronze Birch Borer. Aphids can sometimes be a problem- look for the distinctive honeydew on plants below the tree. River Birch has excellent heat tolerance, but may struggle in periods of extended drought. It will often shed its interior leaves if there is not enough soil moisture. In moist years, it may develop leaf spot which can defoliate the interior, older leaves of the tree.

Leaf Lore:

River Birch lives up to its name, tolerant of wetter sites where other trees may struggle. It’s often found along river banks, floodplains, and other seasonally wet locations. In the south, it can often be found with Sweetgum, Sycamore, and Cottonwood along stream banks. River Birch is also the only birch that is found on the Coastal Plains of the US. It is the only birch to produce fruit in spring. The seeds of River Birch are small, no more than 4 millimeters in length, and one catkin contains hundreds of seeds- one pound of seed can easily consist of over 375,000 individual nutlets! Although River Birch is not a commercially valuable wood for timber products, it has specialty uses due to its lighter weight, such as basket hoops and artificial limbs. The sap can be boiled to produce a sweetener.

Companion Plants:

The beautiful exfoliating bark means it pairs best with low plantings at its base that don’t detract from its winter interest. Consider partial-shade perennials like Hostas, Coralbells, or shrubs like Annabelle Hydrangea that contrast with the cinnamon colored bark.

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