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Water Birch Betula nigra

Other Common Name(s):

Other plants called Water Birch:

Phonetic Spelling
BET-yoo-luh NY-gruh
Description

Betula is Latin for birch and describes a genus of about 60 species of deciduous trees and shrubs found in many gardens and landscapes throughout the northern hemisphere. Betula nigra, or River Birch, is a deciduous, upright, flowering tree with cinnamon brown, exfoliating bark and yellow fall foliage that tends to drop off the tree quickly. It is the only native birch that does well in low elevations of the south. Tiny monoecious (male and female) flowers appear in early spring in separate catkins on the same tree. Greenish female flowers are followed by drooping cone-like fruits containing numerous small winged seeds that typically mature in late summer. The River Birch has graceful branches, is easy to transplant, is heat tolerant and moderately salt tolerant. The bark of young River Birch trees is reddish-brown with a papery appearance. The bark peels away year-round and the inner bark varies in hue from light to dark. The papery bark layers remain attached giving it an attractive ragged appearance.  

It can be trained as either a single trunk or multi-trunked tree. As a single trunk tree, it develops a pyramidal habit when young, but matures to a more rounded shape. Multi-trunked trees form a more irregular crown and are generally considered to be the superior growth habit for this species. Birches are considered a "pioneer" species and, thus, tend to grow quickly when young. Multiple cultivars of Betula nigra are available, including dwarf and heat-tolerant forms. 

River Birch prefers wet sites and does best in moist, acidic, sandy, or rocky, well-drained loams in full sun to part shade. The best foliage color occurs in full sun. River birch is perhaps the most culturally adaptable and heat tolerant of the birches. This species has been known to tolerate flooded conditions for extended periods of time. For this reason, it is naturally found in riverbanks, streambanks, and floodplains. In the landscape, keep the tree consistently moist and consider using soaker hoses and bark mulches to keep the root zones cool and moist. It needs little pruning, but if necessary, you can prune during the dormant season. Do not prune in winter or spring when the sap is running because it will bleed. It tends to drop lots of twigs, making it better suited for less manicured areas of the landscape.

Insects, Diseases, or Other Plant Problems: River Birch tends to shed interior leaves during summer droughts and dry periods and can become stressed by summer heat and humidity. River Birch is resistant to the bronze birch borer which infects and kills trees. Aphids, leaf miner and birch skeletonizer may also occur. Watch for leaf spot problems.

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See this plant in the following landscape:
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Dickinson'
    Called 'Northern Tribute', upright rounded habit, ivory bark that exfoliates to copper-bronze, borer resistant.
  • 'Duraheat'
    Somewhat smaller cultivar that features creamy white bark, tolerance to heat, insect/disease resistance and superior foliage.
  • 'Heritage'
    'Heritage' or 'Cully', vigorous, fast-growing, medium-sized, single or multi-stemmed, salmon bark exfoliates to white inner bark
  • 'Little King'
    Sold as FOX VALLEY, dense, compact (10' x 12'), multi-stemmed with irregular crown.
  • 'Little King'
  • 'Royal Frost'
  • 'Shiloh Splash' Betula nigra 'Shiloh Splash' (PP16,362)
    Variegated foliage
  • 'Statechamp'
  • 'Summer Cascade' Betula nigra 'Summer Cascade' PP15,105
    Weeping
'Dickinson', 'Duraheat', 'Heritage', 'Little King', 'Little King', 'Royal Frost', 'Shiloh Splash', 'Statechamp', 'Summer Cascade'
Tags:
#fall color#drought tolerant#interesting bark#wildlife plant#native tree#winter interest#tsc#playground#small mammals#food source#cpp#low flammability#NC native#buffer#children's garden#fire resistant#woodland#naturalizes#edible seeds#shimmer#screening#Braham Arboretum#fantz#larval host plant#food source summer#food source herbage#Coastal FACW#Piedmont Mountains FACW#bird friendly#food source hard-mast fruit#butterfly friendly#tsc-t#audubon
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Dickinson'
    Called 'Northern Tribute', upright rounded habit, ivory bark that exfoliates to copper-bronze, borer resistant.
  • 'Duraheat'
    Somewhat smaller cultivar that features creamy white bark, tolerance to heat, insect/disease resistance and superior foliage.
  • 'Heritage'
    'Heritage' or 'Cully', vigorous, fast-growing, medium-sized, single or multi-stemmed, salmon bark exfoliates to white inner bark
  • 'Little King'
    Sold as FOX VALLEY, dense, compact (10' x 12'), multi-stemmed with irregular crown.
  • 'Little King'
  • 'Royal Frost'
  • 'Shiloh Splash' Betula nigra 'Shiloh Splash' (PP16,362)
    Variegated foliage
  • 'Statechamp'
  • 'Summer Cascade' Betula nigra 'Summer Cascade' PP15,105
    Weeping
'Dickinson', 'Duraheat', 'Heritage', 'Little King', 'Little King', 'Royal Frost', 'Shiloh Splash', 'Statechamp', 'Summer Cascade'
Tags:
#fall color#drought tolerant#interesting bark#wildlife plant#native tree#winter interest#tsc#playground#small mammals#food source#cpp#low flammability#NC native#buffer#children's garden#fire resistant#woodland#naturalizes#edible seeds#shimmer#screening#Braham Arboretum#fantz#larval host plant#food source summer#food source herbage#Coastal FACW#Piedmont Mountains FACW#bird friendly#food source hard-mast fruit#butterfly friendly#tsc-t#audubon
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Betula
    Species:
    nigra
    Family:
    Betulaceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    The wood is hard and close-grained. It is used for fuel, inexpensive furniture, basket hoops, artificial limbs, and toys. Native Americans are known to have used this tree in many different medicinal purposes. Sap can be fermented to make birch beer.
    Life Cycle:
    Perennial
    Woody
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Seed
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Central & Eastern U.S.A
    Distribution:
    VT south to FL west to TX north through OK, NE, MI, IO, and MN
    Fire Risk Rating:
    low flammability
    Wildlife Value:
    Host plant for Mourning Cloak and Dreamy Duskywing butterflies. Young twigs, buds, and foliage browsed by white-tailed deer. Seeds consumed by grouse, turkey, small birds and rodents. Birds and squirrels eat the male catkins in late winter/early spring.
    Play Value:
    Attracts Pollinators
    Buffer
    Edible fruit
    Pieces Used in Games
    Screening
    Wildlife Food Source
    Wind Break
    Wind Shimmer
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    fire in the landscape.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 40 ft. 0 in. - 90 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 40 ft. 0 in. - 60 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Native Plant
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Habit/Form:
    Multi-trunked
    Open
    Pyramidal
    Growth Rate:
    Rapid
    Maintenance:
    Low
    Texture:
    Medium
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasionally Dry
    Occasionally Wet
    Available Space To Plant:
    6-feet-12 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    3b, 3a, 4a, 4b, 5b, 5a, 6b, 6a, 7b, 7a, 8b, 8a, 9b, 9a
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Edible
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Spring
    Summer
    Fruit Type:
    Aggregate
    Nut
    Fruit Description:
    The tree produces a 1 to 1 1/2 inch cone-like aggregate which contains 3 tiny seeds. Small nutlet, about 400,000 seeds per pound, seed is shed in the spring.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Catkin
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Flower Size:
    1-3 inches
    Flower Description:
    The River Birch has light green, 2 to 3 inch slim, cylindrical flowers and fruiting staminate catkins 2 to 3 inches long that bloom in early spring.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Leaf Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Leaf Feel:
    Rough
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Deltoid
    Ovate
    Rhomboidal
    Leaf Margin:
    Doubly Serrate
    Hairs Present:
    Yes
    Leaf Length:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Width:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Description:
    The leaf of the River Birch is 2 to 3.5 inches long with modest yellow fall color. Leaves are 0.75 to 2.5 inches wide, pointed, sharply acute, broadly cuneate to nearly truncate, glaucous with 7-9 veins underneath.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Light Brown
    Orange
    Surface/Attachment:
    Exfoliating
    Papery
    Peeling
    Ridges
    Smooth
    Bark Description:
    Provides winter interest in the landscape. Smooth on young trees, salmon to rust-colored, develops papery scales. As the tree ages, bark divides into flat, scaly ridges. The bark peels away year-round in tough, paper-like layers that remain on the tree.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Gray/Silver
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Surface:
    Hairy (pubescent)
    Stem Description:
    The bark of branches and twigs is grayish brown and more smooth, while new shoots are light green and pubescent.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Lawn
    Naturalized Area
    Recreational Play Area
    Riparian
    Woodland
    Landscape Theme:
    Butterfly Garden
    Children's Garden
    Edible Garden
    Pollinator Garden
    Rain Garden
    Winter Garden
    Design Feature:
    Mass Planting
    Screen/Privacy
    Shade Tree
    Specimen
    Attracts:
    Butterflies
    Moths
    Pollinators
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Black Walnut
    Compaction
    Deer
    Diseases
    Drought
    Fire
    Heat
    Pollution
    Wet Soil
    Wind
    Problems:
    Messy