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River birch

Large multi-stemmed Heritage river birch tree in summer with Adirondack chair underneath the canopy
Heritage® river birch

River birch (Betula nigra) is a fast-growing, shade tree native to the Mississippi River flood plain in southeastern Minnesota.

It is popular for its ornamental peeling bark.

As a landscape plant, it is grown as a single-stem tree or in a clump as a multi-stemmed tree with three or more trunks.

It transplants easily and grows quickly in a wide variety of soils.

Description

Close up of river birch trunks in summer with golden brown peeling bark and green shrub in background
Bark ranges from cream to tan to golden brown and provides year-round interest
  • Deciduous tree; it drops its leaves in fall

  • Height: 50 to 75 feet; smaller cultivated varieties available

  • Width: 35 to 50 feet; smaller cultivated varieties available

  • Narrow form in youth to more rounded shape at maturity

  • Ivory, tan, and cinnamon-colored peeling bark

  • Male flowers: hanging catkins 2- to 4-inches long

  • Female flowers: erect catkins ½- to 1½-inch tall

  • Leaves are bright and shiny green in spring and summer

  • Foliage turns golden in fall

Erect green female flowers of river birch
Female catkin of river birch

Growing river birch

Gold river birch leaves and catkin in autumn
River birch leaves and female catkin in fall
  • Hardiness zone: 4 to 9
  • Plant in full sun, tolerates heat
  • Best soil properties for river birch:
    • Sandy to clay soils
    • Soil pH 4.0 to 6.5
      Have your soil tested by the U of M Soil Testing Lab
    • Moist to wet well-drained to poorly-drained soils. Tolerates some dryness and soil compaction.

Common problems

  • Brittle branches

  • Yellowing of leaves (chlorosis) when planted in alkaline soils (pH higher than 6.5)

Chlorotic trees will eventually die unless soil pH is reduced or supplemental iron is added.

River birch is resistant to bronze birch borer, a destructive pest on many other birch species

Visit What's wrong with my plant? – Birch for a list of the most common birch pests and stresses in Minnesota.

Cultivated varieties of river birch for Minnesota

Fox Valley river birch is a small shrub-like tree with a rounded compact shape
Fox Valley® river birch at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Cultivated varieties of river birch have been selected for shorter heights, different shapes, improved bark color, and larger or variegated foliage.

  • Heritage® — glossy green foliage, oval growth habit, 50 feet tall and 35 feet wide at maturity
  • Fox Valley® — glossy green foliage, compact oval growth habit, 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide at maturity
  • 'Summer Cascade' — green foliage, cascading growth habit, 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide at maturity
  • 'Shiloh Splash' — green with white-edged leaves, pyramidal upright growth habit, 30 feet tall and 15 feet wide at maturity

Kathy Zuzek, former Extension educator; Rebecca Koetter; and Julie Weisenhorn, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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