Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tuesday's Trees- River Birch, Betula nigra

I remember a number of years ago seeing a large ragged looking tree outside a garden center.  I was far from even thinking about tree postings, very young in my Master Gardener-ship.  My friend and I asked one of the people who works at this garden center what that tree was.  His response??  Yes, it was a River Birch.  No, it did not look like this one on the right.  The bark on a mature River Birch is not thin and papery and peeling.  The bark on a mature Betula nigra is dark, thick, and scaly.  He told us that most people don't realize how different the mature tree looks from the young tree.   Les?  Was that you all those years ago? 

People have a love/hate relationship with the River Birch.   This tree is a native to North America.  It is also one that many have cultivated varieties in their front yard.  I like the look of the young tree, I love the dappled light that filters through the many small leaves.  Ask someone who has a Betula in their front yard what they think of their tree.
This picture was taken along the edge of the lake that I live on, it is a naturally occurring tree.  The lake is fed by two rivers, now dammed, making the lake.  See all these small branches?  They are brittle and end up littering the yard, along with the leaves and in the spring-- the catkins.  This is my only negative on this pretty tree.  The name 'River Birch' comes from the location and habit of the tree.  It thrives along the water's edge.  While some of the reading I did says it does not need wet soil.  It is found along stream beds and floodplains because of the seed disbursement.  Betula nigra is one of the few early ripening seed trees.  These seeds drop early in the spring in the exposed mudflats and are carried downstream by receding high spring waters.  Seed production occurs almost every year.  All other birch produce their seeds in the fall.  Other trees that are early spring ripe seeds are Silver Maple and American Elm. 

This picture is representative of the spring's flowering of the River Birch.  I was only able to get a photo of the male catkins.  This tree is monoecious, both  male and female flowers on the same plant.  The pollen is one of the hay fever culprits.   The fruits mature as the leaves emerge.   The leaves are alternately attached, simple, oval, and double-toothed margins.  As young leaves their veins are quite noticable.  The leaves are darker on the top and lighter in color on the underside.    Their fall color is yellow to brown. 

This is the only native birch that is resistant to the Bronze Birch Borer beetle larve. 
A mature tree came be 80 feet tall in the perfect place, most commonly they are under 60 feet.  Their shape is a nice vase shaped and a rounded crown.  These trees can live 50 -75 years. 
Commercially the wood is not desirable.  Some use the River Birch for basket hoops, inexpensive furniture and turned articles.  According to the Silvics Manual they can be harvested for pulpwood with a mixture of other hardwoods.  The Silvics Manual is a wonderful reference website.  If you haven't visited this site, you should do so.  I share just the tip of the iceberg of information from this web resource.

I leave you with a couple more photos of the bark, the branches, and the bright blue sky.  In the right place, this is a wonderful tree, especially if you don't worry about little branches dropping in the garden.

The decorative bark is always a nice focal interest in the winter.  I am going to take a break from the tree posts for a while.  I have to build my photo library.  When we were in Virginia I had the Learning Garden with all the trees labeled.....now I am having to learn to make those dreaded identifications with book in hand. (with the help of a patient Extension agent who thinks I spend all my time wandering in the woods. )

©Copyright 2011 Janet. All rights reserved. Content created by Janet for The Queen of Seaford. words and photos by Janet,The Queen of Seaford.


  1. I like these trees even tho they are a bit messy. They have such character & interest. It's amazing how the bark does that.

  2. Count me in as a huge fan of the River Birch. I have very wet, poor draining soil and these have thrived since I planted them a few years ago. Thanks for all the info and pics, especially love the catkins photo.

  3. I love the texture of tree bark, and this river birch is most beautiful.
    Thanks for the photos and info, I have been a tree hugger for years, but will add river birch to my hug list.

  4. I think I've seen these trees around here and I didn't know what they were.
    I'll be on the lookout.
    Great post.

  5. These are such pretty trees and grow so fast. I had one here but dug it up and gave it to my neighbor. Not because of the small twigs but because it would have gotten too big for the spot. I was sad to see it go but it is doing well and I can see it from my yard. In our trial gardens at UT Jackson they have HUGE river birches. They are beautiful trees. I'll miss your Tuesday's trees.

  6. We don't have river birch but white birch in our area. But I too notice how different the bark is through their lifespan. We have some trees just a few years old and the bark is dark and shiny, then it progresses to white and eventually quite papery and the very mature trees have thick grey bark. It's quite amazing actually and changes the look of the garden depending on the tree's age.

  7. River Birch has the most fantastic bark.I love the texture. I have not saw the seed pods before. How fascinating.

  8. I think they are interesting trees with that peeling bark. Great post as always Janet. :)

  9. Great new header... or perhaps I'm only just discovering it!
    Entrancing catkins, by the way;-)
    aka Bay Area Tendrils

  10. I really like the bark on these trees. I didn't realize the mature ones had the heavier peeling bark, just thought they were a different type.

  11. Very interesting information, Janet. I know that a lot of people plant river birches because they like their appearance, but I wonder if they consider the mature appearance and the falling branches.

    There's nothing wrong with spending your time wandering in the woods:)

  12. Hey what is wrong with wandering around in the woods all day? :)
    It sounds like a dream come true, for me anyways.
    I love these birch trees because of their unique peeling bark. I used to think that they were really "sick" trees when I was little until my Dad explained they were supposed to look like that.
    Good luck with your photo library.

  13. The bark is really eye catching of the River Birch. I don’t think I would care for the constant falling twigs though. Kind of like my dads pesky but beautiful Willow Tree. I bet the beavers like those twigs...

  14. Beautiful bark on these birches! When I saw the image of the catkins, my nose and eyes got all itchy. Ah-choo. Even so, they are pretty trees in many ways.

  15. They are very beautiful when young ~ since we have a lot of bottomland we have a lot of River Birches here.

  16. I prefer to admire a River Birch in a neighbors yard.

  17. Hi Janet,
    Another interesting tree. We came across a River Birch on a recent walk through the woods. At the time, we admired the papery bark, but did not know what kind of tree it was. Now we know. Hope you are having a great weekend. We are promised a nice sunny, warm day here. I think spring has arrived at long last!

  18. It could have been me, or if it was for Master Gardener training, it was likely my co-worker Jeff. When the Peninsula MG's come over for training, he does trees, I do shrubs.

    I always think of this tree as best fitting more contemporary or naturalistic landscapes.

  19. i have enjoyed the dappled shade and pretty bark of my river birch, but could do without all the seeds. we always have a slew of babies to pull.

  20. Lola, yes, it is an interesting looking tree.

    ONG, ok, you are a fan! Glad yours are doing so well.

    Jilda, it is a beautiful tree. Glad to know you are in the ranks of we tree huggers!

    Rick, so now you know! thanks.

    Tina, you are quite the digger upper! I can't imagine digging up one of any size. My Tuesday's Trees will be back, just need to gather more info!

    Marguerite, I think the white birch are really beautiful. Love the papery bark.

    Lona, I think the seed pods are pretty cool looking in the spring.

    Racquel, thanks so much.

    Alice Joyce, Tina made my header sign, found its perfect place on the front porch. thanks for coming by!

    Catherine, I didn't know that either at first! Just a mature tree.

    Rose, I think many people plant trees for what they look like in a certain span of time, there are many trees I think people would not have planted had they known some of the pitfalls....Sweetgums are example.
    And I love checking out the woods!

    Rosey, I agree! I feel like I am living in Paradise, in oh so many ways. Thanks, I will be snapping away to collect more pics of different trees.

    Skeeter, It is really eye catching bark. Very similar to the willow with the small twiggy branches. Our neighbors lost one to a beaver!

    Aerie-el, thanks! Birch and elm are high on the pollen count right now. Achoooo indeed.

    Sweetbay, bottomlands are the perfect place to be sure!

    Gene, very good thinking!

    Jennifer, happy to educate you on what a new tree. Hope you are having spring weather!!

    Les, it wasn't during a MG class, just a random trip over to Smithfield. I like this tree in its nature environs.

    Daricia, the dappled shade is very nice. I imagine all those little seeds do sprout.

  21. Thanks, i found you because i was trying to find out what the blooms are on our River Birch, now I know, Thank you. Just a little sharing, I have a Cardinal staring at me through my window they nested right out there and i walk out my front door every day lately to the sound of little chirps...someone nested in my Topsy Turvy...ok I just felt like sharing that bit of info...CHEESE


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