Great Design Plant: River Birch

River birch (Betula nigra) is a one of the best trees for year-round interest. Using its multicolored papery bark which peels away from the trunk, this North American native species is an excellent selection for a driveway entrance, backyard habitat or woodland edge. And the way it can flourish in moist conditions makes it particularly valuable where drainage is a concern.

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Botanical name: Betula nigra
Common names: River birch, black birch, water birch
Source: Native to the eastern United States
USDA Islands: 3 to 9 (find your zone)
Water requirement: Moderate to wet soil; adheres to flow banks (because its common name implies) and poor lands
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 40 to 70 feet tall
Benefits and tolerances: Fast-growing, disease-resistant Pick for riparian buffers to curtail stream erosion and improve biodiversity; foliage are a larval food source for swallowtail butterflies and other insects; seeds bring numerous birds and other wildlife
Seasonal interest: Year-round; beautiful yellow fall color
When to plant: Early spring to late autumn

Distinguishing traits. With lustrous 3-inch leaves, slender catkins and bark, river birch creates dappled shade that is easy to plant beneath.

Its foliage color in autumn is a medium yellow. Throughout the winter, with a new blanket of snow, the bark is a welcome sight; it looks especially good against a background of cedar, pine or hemlock.

Disease-resistant ‘Heritage’ is a patented choice named by Earl Cully of Heritage Trees; it’s an outstanding cultivar that is less likely to leaf spot than other birches and is more resistant to the bronze birch borer. It’s also more compact than the typical species — reaching about 40 feet tall when mature — and has a deeper saturation of bark colors.

ADRIAN SMITH – Landscape Architecture

How to use It. Grow it as a specimen or in a grove to create a pragmatic buffer in full sunlight; combine it with native foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and inkberry holly (Ilex glabra).

Fast climbing, multistemmed trees in clump form include visual punch and are good for screening, while single-trunk specimens offer architectural formality.


Planting notes. Trees want acidic soils with a pH of 6.5 or lower, so amend if necessary. All these are large trees, so allow lots of room to grow and water during dry spells, especially in warmer zones.

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