Content Detail

River birch is a popular, fast-growing native tree for the home landscape. Attractive salmon-pink to reddish-brown bark exfoliates to reveal lighter inner bark. Dark green foliage turns a beautiful buttery yellow in the fall. This species is resistant to bronze birch borer (BBB). This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

  • Family (English) Birch
  • Family (botanic) Betulaceae
  • Planting site Residential and parks, Restricted sites
  • Tree or plant type Tree
  • Foliage Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
  • Native locale Chicago area, Illinois, North America
  • Size range Medium tree (25-40 feet)
  • Mature height 30-40 feet
  • Mature width 20-30 feet
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 4, Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8, Zone 9
  • Soil preference Acid soil, Moist, well-drained soil, Wet soil
  • Tolerances clay soil, Occasional flooding, Road salt, Wet sites
  • Season of interest early winter, midwinter, late winter, early fall, mid fall, late fall
  • Flower color and fragrance Inconspicuous
  • Shape or form Pyramidal, Round
  • Growth rate Fast
  • Transplants well Yes
  • Wildlife Game birds, Insect pollinators, Small mammals, Songbirds
  • Has cultivars Yes

Native geographic location and habitat: 

Native to the eastern half of the United States, river birch is commonly found along rivers and streams. C-Value: 7.  

Bark color and texture:

An attractive cream and cinnamon colored peeling bark is an ornamental feature of this tree.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture: 

The simple, alternate leaves are  2 to 3 inches long, triangular or wedge-shaped, with doubly serrated margins. The summer leaves are dark green with lighter undersides. Fall color is yellow.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size: 

Male flowers are held in long, slender catkins near tips of stems. Female flowers stand upright along the same twig and are inconspicuous.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions: 

Fruit are elongated clusters of winged seeds.

Plant care:

River birch is drought sensitive and does not like hot, dry summers. Plants benefit with a 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch and supplemental water in dry periods. Birches are considered  “bleeders”, so avoid pruning in spring.

List of pests, diseases, and tolerances: 

Iron chlorosis is common in high pH soils. River birch is susceptible to aphids, leaf miners, and leaf spots. Resistant to bronze birch borer. Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.

These plants are cultivars of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits.

City Slicker® river birch (Betula nigra ‘Whit XXV’):

Dark green foliage turns bright yellow in fall. Good drought tolerance.

Dura-Heat® river birch (Betula nigra ‘BNMTF’): 

Smaller, glossy, olive green leaves, with whitish, exfoliating bark, this cultivar is more resistant to aphids and has better resistance to heat.

Fox Valley® river birch  (Betula nigra ‘Little King’): 

A dense, 10 to 12 feet high, compact form that branches to the ground, this cultivar sports glossy green leaves and exfoliating bark. Introduced through the Chicagoland Grows® program.

Heritage® river birch (Betula nigra ‘Cully’):

Larger, glossy, dark green leaves with nearly white interior peeling bark, this cultivar is more heat tolerant.

Shiloh Splash river birch (Betula nigra ‘Shiloh Splash’):

A compact form growing 10 feet high and 8 feet wide. The foliage is variegated and has cream or ivory edges.

Summer Cascade river birch   (Betula nigra ‘Summer Cascade’):  

A weeping form that grows 6 feet high and 10 feet wide. It can be taller if staked.

Tecumseh Compact® river birch  (Betula nigra ‘Studetec’):  

A 10 to 12 foot tree with a rounded compact form and semi-arching branches, this cultivar has cinnamon colored exfoliating bark.


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