River Birch

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
The most important thing about river birches is that they were declared by Prince Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, to be the most beautiful of American trees -- a sentiment we definitely agree with. Some other things to know about river birches is that they are deciduous, upright, flowering trees with exfoliated, light brown bark. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow and quickly drop off the tree. This type of birch is the only native birch that thrives in low elevations in the south. In general, river birches grow in wet sites with moist, acidic, sandy, rocky, or well-drained loam (meaning there are equal proportions of sand, silt, and clay. The specific tree we studied is very large with two bifurcations, causing it to have three main trunks. The branches were of the alternating pattern, and seed pods were observed on the ends of the branches. The bark was scaly.
Molly Rogelstad, Alex Shore
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Date of tree entry: 
9.60 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.84 m

There are too many multiple trunks to accurately measure the DBH, so this is just an estimate
River birches are well-known for their peeling, scaly bark. The tree has two layers: an inner and an outer layer of bark. The inner layer of bark, known as cambium, continues to grow and is characterized by a lighter, white color. This new growth induces the peeling of the outer layer, the darker brown bark on the exterior of the tree, since the outer layer cannot stretch and accommodate the new growth. Much of the peeling occurs during the springtime, when growth is at a maximum.
Twigs & branches
The twigs of the river birch follow an alternating pattern, as shown by the picture. The twigs are extremely thin and have a reddish-brown color. The branches of the river birch are thicker and point upwards and outwards, which are reminiscent of the oval or slightly open tree forms. The branches are a gray color and have peeling bark.
The leaves of the river birch resemble those of other birch trees -- they are alternate and ovate-shaped with a doubly serrated margin. The color is medium green on the upper surface with a paler, almost silvery color on the underside. The leaves turn yellow in the fall.
Reproductive Structures
The river birch is monoecious, which means that it has separate male and female flowers on the same plants. Staminate catkins, which are male, are formed at the tips of twigs in the fall. These catkins mature in April or May of the subsequent year. Female seed-producing catkins are called pistillates, and are located on spur-shoots -- they appear within the leaves. The flowers open in the early spring, and their fruit matures in the late spring or early summer. River birches are the only type of birch that do not produce seeds in the fall. The seeds of the river birch are relatively large compared to that of other birch trees, and have wings that allow them to be transported by the wind or by streams.
The fruit, or strobiles, of the river birch is cone-like and aggregate. They tend to be 1-1 ½ inches long with many hairy scales. They are colored reddish-brown, and have many small, 3-winged seeds. The fruit ripens in the spring.
  • River Birch in the Spring (Catkins Present)
Natural range of distribution: 
The river birch thrives in sunlight or partial shade in wet sites with moist, acidic, sandy, or rocky and well-drained loam. Out of all the birches, the river birch seems to be the most adaptable and heat tolerant. It is also able to tolerate moderate flooded conditions, which explains why it is found on the banks of rivers, streams. River birches can be found in the eastern third of the United States.
Origin, history, and uses: 

The river birch is native to the Eastern United States, ranging from as far north as New Hampshire to the southern extreme of northern Florida, and can be found as far west as Minnesota and Texas – this range is unique to the river birch in comparison to other birches, which usually cannot adapt to warmer climates. River birches grow the tallest in the damp areas of the south. The river birch is also the only species of birch that is resistant to birch borer, which is a very harmful disease. It is also more resistant to air pollution, with some river birch sightings even occurring in Central Park. Resultantly “Heritage,” a cultivar of the river birch was named 2002 Urban Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists. River birches have a wide variety of uses because they are inexpensive and also easy to utilize. For example, they can be used to make furniture, to build infrastructure, and to burn as firewood. River birches can also be used in a medicinal context; they have methyl salicylate, which has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to help alleviate pain. River birches have also been used to improve the environment. Due to their firm and resilient roots, river birches are used in order to regulate and prevent soil erosion. River birches can survive in acidic soils that have a pH between 2 and 4. As a result, they can be used to help with strip mine reclamation, since the tree can tolerate the acidic soil caused by mining waste.

In the spring, the leaves of the river birch are green. During the fall, the leaves of a river birch turn a golden yellow or brown, and then these leaves fall off the tree in late autumn and early winter. River birches are deciduous trees. Since river birches are monoecious, they have both male and female flowers, known as catkins. Catkins are found at the ends of branches and are used during reproduction in the spring. River birches produce these catkins towards the end of summer/early autumn.

Betula nigra . Betula nigra. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from http://www.museum.state.il.us/muslink/forest/htmls/trees/B-nigra.html Betula nigra. Betula nigra (Black Birch, Red Birch, River Birch, Water Birch) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/betula-nigra/#:~:text=River%20birch%2… Koevenig, J. L. (1975). DISTRIBUTION OF RIVER BIRCH, BETULA NIGRA, IN THE UNITED STATES. Florida Scientist, 38(1), 13–19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24319414 Mahir, S. (n.d.). River birch, betula nigra. Wisconsin Horticulture. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/river-birch-betula-nigra/ River Birch . Betula nigra L. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/misc/ag_654/volume_2/betula/nigra.htm Shaughnessy, O. A. D., Shaughnessy, D., Polomski, R. F., & Williamson, J. (2021, February 15). River birch. Home & Garden Information Center | Clemson University, South Carolina. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/river-birch/#:~:text=In%20addition%20…. UVM tree profiles : River Birch : Natural History and other important characteristics. Omeka RSS. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from http://libraryexhibits.uvm.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/uvmtrees/river-birch/… Venit, K. (n.d.). Why does birch tree bark peel off? Chippewa Valley Family - News and Events in Eau Claire. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://chippewavalleyfamily.org/news/2019/07/01/254513-why-does-birch-t… Virginia Tech Dendrology. Virginia Tech Dendrology Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=13#:~:te… Zuzek, K. (n.d.). River birch. UMN Extension. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://extension.umn.edu/trees-and-shrubs/river-birch

Media and Arts

Oh river birch We should have put you on our YNW merch You are the best out of all the dicots And it was my eye that you really caught When we went on our first nature walk behind Murray I felt like I had no need to worry Standing there in front of your alternating leaves I realized there is so much you can achieve Although you typically are found by water Your range in the US is much broader Your roots run deep and are tough To prevent erosion when tides get rough You have a wide range of applications Ranging from medicine to house foundations You are so interesting and versatile Studying you is an endeavor worthwhile