Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plants

A comprehensive database of Tennessee native plants

River Birch, Red Birch

River Birch, Red Birch

Betula nigra

Full sun to light shade; moderately wet to medium moisture level; adaptable to most soils including fine heavy clay; slightly acid to moderately acid pH.

40-70 feet height by 40-60 feet spread; flowers are yellow-brown catkins 2-3 inches long in April; fruit is a small winged nutlet in a 1 – 1 1/2” long strobile (cone-like structure) in summer.

Growth Rate: Medium to fast

Maintenance: Low maintenance. Infrequent disease and insect problems.   Avoid pruning in late winter and spring to avoid excessive bleeding of sap. Fall, just after leaf drop, is best time to prune. Can cut to the ground every 20 years to help keep the bark colorful and the tree a manageable size. It will re-sprout very quickly.

Propagation: Moderately easy from seed and difficult from cuttings

Native Region: Statewide except absent in the Central Basin

The most adaptable birch for the southern landscape as it has great heat tolerance. Probably the most trouble-free of diseases and insects of the birches. It is not susceptible to the borers and birch leaf miners that often attack other birch species. Very handsome specimen tree and is popular for landscaping. Bark is reddish brown to pinkish tan and exfoliates in long papery strips. Typically found in the wild along river banks, floodplains and other areas often subject to periodic flooding. Best adapted to moist soils where it reaches its best development and is not drought tolerant. Many cultivars are available, with ‘Heritage’ being one of the most successful.

Attracts butterflies, birds and small mammals. Very important host plant to wide variety of moths and butterflies including the Cecropia moth and the White Admiral, Viceroy, and Mourning Cloak butterflies. Seeds attract birds, and branches provide good nesting sites.





One response to “River Birch, Red Birch

  1. joystewart October 21, 2020 at 3:24 pm

    I have the ‘Heritage’ river birch, and it is an amazing tree. We have such solid red clay that we had a small backhoe come in to dig the planting hole. We were going to mix compost into the clay when we refilled the hole but the clay was virtually unmixable. So we ended up just dumping the compost into a clay hole. Tree didn’t seem to mind and has long since outgrown the original hole and is still healthy, gorgeous and fast growing.

    My pet peeve with river birch is the very common practice of planting 3 whips in one hole. It ultimately leads to such intense competition that 2 of the 3 trees become sickly and eventually die off….very unattractive and unhealthy for the trees. I had a hard time finding a single tree in a large pot but I stuck with it and did finally find it. It paid off big time.

    One thing I will note about river birch that I didn’t know beforehand is that the entire bottom section of branches are drooping, and all the branch tips either touch the ground or come very near it, making mowing under the tree very difficult. However, you would have to cut off so many branches to eliminate this problem that the tree would look strange, so I just put up with it. We mulched a large area immediately under the tree, and then I get someone to lift the branch tips while I use a weed-whacker on the grass around the mulch. It is such an ornamental tree that it is worth a little extra effort. Just allow plenty of space!

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