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Extension > Garden > Yard and Garden > Trees and Shrubs > River birch

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River birch (Betula nigra)

Kathy Zuzek and Rebecca Koetter

Plant description

Mature height: 50 to 75'
Mature width: 35 to 50'
Growth rate: Fast
Plant form: Columnar in youth, rounded at maturity
Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous
Native range: New Hampshire south to Florida and west to Minnesota and Texas
Native to Minnesota: Yes
Invasive in Minnesota: No


Light: Full
Soil texture: Sandy to clay soils
Soil pH: 4.0 to 6.5
Soil moisture: Prefers moist to wet and well-drained to poorly-drained soils, tolerates some dryness
Hardiness zone: 4 to 9
Pests and stresses: Visit What's wrong with my plant? – Birch for a list of the most common birch pests and stresses in Minnesota.
Other: Tolerant of heat, compacted and poorly drained soils; susceptible to iron chlorosis on high pH soils, resistant to bronze birch borer

River birch in the landscape

The native habitat of river birch in Minnesota is restricted to the Mississippi River floodplain in the southeastern corner of the state. But as a landscape plant, river birch is planted extensively in the southern half of Minnesota. It transplants and establishes easily, grows quickly, and is very adaptable to a wide range of soil textures, moisture levels, and drainage patterns. River birch is restricted only by soil pH levels above 6.5 where foliage chlorosis (yellowing) develops due to iron starvation. Without modification of soil pH or the addition of iron, chlorotic trees will eventually die. When grown on slightly acidic soils, river birch is a beautiful shade tree or accent plant that is grown as a single-stem specimen or as a multi-stemmed tree with three or more trunks. B. nigra is also resistant to the bronze birch borer that is a destructive pest on many other birch species.

River birch has multiple seasons of interest. As a young and middle-aged tree, river birch is a slender columnar tree with beautiful ivory, tan, and cinnamon peeling bark that adds interest year round. 2-4" male flowers called catkins add winter interest as they dangle from stems. Pollen from male flowers fertilize small 1/2 - 1 1/2" erect female catkins produced in spring. When they are pollinated, they develop into catkins full of winged seed that are dispersed by wind, water, or gravity. 2-4" triangular, toothed, dark green leaves provide shade in summer before turning bright yellow in autumn.

Cultivars have been selected for improved bark color, larger or variegated foliage, and compact or weeping plant habit.

K. Zuzek, UMN Extension

Female catkin of river birch

K. Zuzek, UMN Extension

Male catkin of river birch

USDA Forest Service Agric. Handb. 654

Native range of river birch in North America

Minnesota DNR

Native range of river birch in Minnesota

Bailey Nurseries

Heritage® river birch

K. Zuzek, UMN Extension

Fox Valley® river birch

K. Zuzek, UMN Extension

River birch leaf

K. Zuzek, UMN Extension

River birch bark

Some cultivars grown in Minnesota:

Cultivar traits:
Cultivar Foliage color Growth habit Size
(h x w)
Heritage® Glossy green Oval 50' x 35'
Fox Valley® Glossy green Compact broad oval 10' x 12'
'Summer Cascade' Green Weeping 8' x 12'
'Shiloh Splash' Variegated white and green Pyramidal, upright oval 30' x 15'


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