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River Birch Betula nigra


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River Birch, bark
credit: Kurt Stueber/CCSA

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Alternate name: Red Birch

Family: Betulaceae, Birch view all from this family

Description Betula nigra (also occasionally called Water Birch) is native to the eastern United States from New Hampshire west to southern Minnesota, and south to northern Florida and east Texas. It is commonly found in flood plains and/or swamps. It is a deciduous tree growing to 25 m (80 ft), rarely to 30 m (100 ft), high with a trunk up to 50 cm (2 ft), rarely 150 cm (5 ft), diameter, often with multiple trunks. The bark is variable, usually dark gray-brown to pinkish-brown and scaly, but in some individuals, smooth and creamy pinkish-white, exfoliating in curly papery sheets. The twigs are glabrous or thinly hairy, and odorless when scraped. The leaves are alternate, ovate, 4–8 cm (1.5–3 in) long and 3–6 cm (1.2-2.4 in) broad, with a serrated margin and five to twelve pairs of veins. The flowers are wind-pollinated catkins 3–6 cm (1.2-2.4 in) long, the male catkins pendulous, the female catkins erect. The fruit is unusual among birches in maturing in late spring; it is composed of numerous tiny winged seeds packed between the catkin bracts.

While its native habitat is wet ground, it will grow on higher land, and its bark is quite distinctive, making it a favored ornamental tree for landscape use.

Native Americans used the boiled sap as a sweetener similar to maple syrup, and the inner bark as a survival food.

Habitat Watersides (fresh).

Range Great Lakes, New England, Plains, Mid-Atlantic, Texas, Southeast, Florida.

Comments River birch is fast growing and long-lived and is probably our most trouble-free birch. Do not prune until summer when the sap has stopped flowing. Well-suited to areas that are periodically wet. Develops iron chlorosis on high pH soils. Chlorosis is more often due, however, to dryness. Trees is dry situations may defoliate, languish and die.

Exposure Preference Sun to partial shade.

Native Distribution N. Florida to scattered New England localities, w. to e. Texas & s.e. Minnesota

Site Preference Flat, sandy bottomlands; stream banks

Soil Preference Sandy, moist soils. pH less than 6.5.