Betula nigra, The Long-lived and Lovely River Birch

By Gretchen Spencer, Fairfax Master Gardener

River Birch

River Birch ‘Heritage’

It’s wonderful to sing the praises of a tree, and there is much to praise about the river birch. We planted our first river birch five years ago, and it quickly became a focal point in the backyard, with its wonderful exfoliating bark and graceful arching branches. That cultivar, ‘Heritage,’ was followed a few years later with three smaller ‘Dura-Heat’ river birches. Now we have a grove of river birches to admire all year around! So let’s sing the praises of this tree!

River birches are adaptable to a range of soil conditions. While they prefer soils that are moist and acidic, they will adapt to drier conditions. They also will grow in heavy clay soil. In their native habitat, they can be found growing along streams, in flood plains, and in swampy areas. River birches can also tolerate heat and drought, although they may drop their leaves early in drought conditions. Watering deeply and providing a layer of mulch are beneficial in these conditions. A river birch will grow in full sun to part shade.

The river birch grows about 40 to 80 feet high and 40 to 60 feet wide. There are both multi-stemmed and single-stemmed varieties. The glossy, 2- to 3-inch leaves are irregularly oval with doubly toothed margins. They turn yellow in the fall. A river birch bears both male and female flowers. The male catkins appear on the ends of the twigs in the fall and mature in