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Season of Trees: A tree with great bark!

Heritage® River birch
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is all about trees. And this tree, the river birch, is a marvel with its heavily-peeling bark, excellent wildlife value, and land conservation importance. Plant breeders are finding new varieties to work in smaller yards, or large and majestic ones with excellent fall color.

Plus, we’ll tell you about our favorite river birch at the Arboretum!

River Birch

River birch (Betula nigra), sometimes called black birch, water birch, or red birch, is a medium or fast growing tree best known for its peeling bark which exhibits shades of orange, red, gray, or cream blended with brown. Grown in single-stem or clump forms, it is native from Minnesota to Florida.

As its common name implies, river birch prefers moist soils, and is commonly found along stream banks or areas prone to occasional flooding. It does not tolerate drought, yet is suited to hot conditions.  

In soils with high pH due to limestone, clay, or poor drainage, iron chlorosis causes the leaves to become a chartreuse color. As such, this species prefers soils on the acidic side, and has been planted on former mining sites in reclamation efforts.

Bark ranges in texture and color,
providing year round interest.
What is river birch? 

  • Deciduous, leaves drop in the fall
  • Height: 40-70 feet tall, smaller cultivars available
  • Width: 40-60 feet, smaller cultivars available
  • Habit: upright, pyramidal to rounded
  • Ivory, tan and cinnamon-colored peeling bark
  • Male flowers: hanging catkins, 2 to 4 inches long
  • Female flowers: erect catkins, 1/2 to 1-1/2 inches long
  • Leaves: bright green and shiny in spring and summer, yellow shades in the fall

Best growing conditions

Hardiness zone: 3 to 7, tolerates heat
Growth is more dense in full sun, but shade tolerant

Recommended soil properties:
  • Soil pH: 6.5 or below
  • Sandy to clay soils
  • Moist to wet soils, tolerates poor drainage and some compaction  
  • Intolerant to drought
Have your soil tested by the UMN Soil Testing Lab before planting.

The best ways to use your river birch

For landscape uses, the river birch makes a beautiful specimen.  Once mature, the shade provided is plentiful, as the species typically reaches 40 to 70 feet in height, with a spread of 40 to 60 feet.  

Recently introduced cultivated varieties are shorter and well suited to smaller yards.  Adaptable to sunny or shady locations, fall color can be brief, but pleasing, with yellows ranging from butter to gold.

In early spring, sap flows from birch similar to maples. Recently, horticulturists at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum collected birch sap at the same time as sugar maples.  The amount of sap was less per tree, but the quality of the syrup was good.

This species is a must for bird, butterfly, and moth enthusiasts. Mourning cloak butterfly caterpillars feed on the foliage, as do luna and cecropia moth caterpillars.  The nectar also attracts eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies and hummingbirds. Several songbirds feed on seeds, and some birds use the canopy cover for nesting.

Common problems
Male catkins form in the fall (photo above)
and mature in the spring.

River birch is often considered the toughest of all birch.  It resists damage from the bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius), and sometimes develops leaf spots in wetter years.  Neither issue is considered deadly.  

In high pH soils, leaves become chlorotic, and trees can eventually die without the supplemental addition of sulfur or iron.

Visit What’s wrong with my plant? - Birch for a list of the most common pest problems in Minnesota.

Cultivated varieties of River birch for MN

Cultivated varieties are selected for size, color, and performance in Minnesota. We recommend buying from local nurseries, as Minnesota-grown plants are already adapted to our climate and soils, require less transportation and fuel costs, and are unlikely to introduce or spread invasive species from other parts of the country.
  • Fox Valley® — glossy green foliage, compact oval growth habit, 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide at maturity
  • Heritage® — glossy green foliage, oval growth habit, 50 feet tall and 35 feet wide at maturity
  • 'Shiloh Splash' — green with white-edged leaves, pyramidal upright growth habit, 30 feet tall and 15 feet wide at maturity
  • 'Summer Cascade' — green foliage, cascading growth habit, 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide at maturity
The above varieties are listed in the Plant Information Online database, which offers plant and seed sources throughout North America.  

Our favorite River birch at the Arb

Though it displays iron chlorosis from high pH soil, this tree has held on for years and years.  Located in our Pillsbury Shade tree collection, our river birch is quite the specimen.  Though the leaves are a lighter chartreuse color, it has held on and seems proud of its unique look.  Enjoy a rest in the shade when walking the grounds!

River birch is on our Interactive Tree Trek map.  To find one, click the layers icon in the top right, and add Tree Trek.  The map will show you where to go, and give you a little info to take with you!

Author: Erin Buchholz, Integrated Pest Management Specialist, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Erin Buchholz, MN Landscape Arboretum
Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series the Y&G News calls “Season of Trees.”  Every month, we’ll tell you all about a specific tree, what varieties do well in Minnesota and how to grow them.

In 2020, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum celebrates the “Season of Trees: Returning to our Roots” which will highlight the beauty and benefits of trees in our communities.

Our guest writer for this series is Erin Buchholz from the Arboretum. Erin earned her bachelor's degree in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota. She has worked in nonprofits and public gardens for over 15 years, and worked as an elementary school teacher for five years while earning her master's degree in education.  

She has returned to her love of connecting people to plants as the IPM (Integrated Pest Management) Specialist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Combining horticulture with education, she teaches staff and visitors how to use IPM to keep plants (and people) healthy.

  --Gail Hudson, Y & G News Editor

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