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.
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
Growing river birch
- 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.
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
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
Reviewed in 2018