If you’re looking for a tree with an interesting branch structure and leaves that dazzle in the wind and the sunlight, look no further than a river birch tree.
These trees have a multi-stemmed trunk and cinnamon and cream peeling bark that provides color and interest all year long. And they thrive in wet soil, such as along ponds and streams or in low-lying spots of your yard.
It is a very adaptable species with quite a tolerance for poorly drained soils and warm conditions.
These are more than a few reasons river birch can be a great addition to your yard.
You may have a river birch in your landscape or maybe you’re thinking about it as the next tree you’d like to plant. Let’s look at river birch trees and some care tips to ensure they thrive in your space.
How to Identify a River Birch Tree
River birch trees are fast-growing, deciduous trees that can reach between 40 and 70 feet in height.
River birch tree leaves are diamond-shaped and are part of an upright, spreading canopy. In the fall, the river birch brings a yellow-gold color that radiates sun in the landscape.
While the tree leaves that flutter in the wind are beautiful, river birch tree bark is what really steals the show. It’s silvery-gray when young before changing to a pink-ish brown when mature.
Flowers in the spring and winter are followed by small brown or green cones in summer.
River Birch Tree Facts
The beautiful bark and leaves of a river birch tree make it a common landscape choice. But there are also some fun river birch tree facts that give it history and character.
River birch are tolerant of very acidic soils. In fact, they’ve even been used in strip mine reclamation where the soils have become too acidic as a result of mining waste.
Because river birch trees easily populate habitats destroyed by fire, it is known as a pioneer species. While they have a history of growing along river banks to help with erosion control, the wood was also once used to make wooden shoes and yokes for oxen.
This type of birch is one of the more borer-resistant species.
River Birch Tree Care
- Grow zones: River birch trees are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9. They can grow naturally in wet environments along river banks so they can tolerate moist soil. They are also more heat tolerant than other birches. The river birch tree growth rate is relatively fast at more than 24 inches per year.
- Where to plant: These trees like cool, moist soil. Afternoon shade can keep soil cooler, so planting to the east or north of your house works best.
- Height/spread: River birch trees grow to a height of 40 to 70 feet and a spread of 40 to 60 feet.
- Sunlight: Full to partial sun is what river birch trees prefer.
- Flowering dates: In addition to their exfoliating bark, river birch trees produce showy reddish-green, 2- to 3-inch long flower clusters called catkins at the ends of their branches. They appear on the tree in late summer and fall and remain during winter.
- Best time to prune: When it comes to river birch tree pruning, you want to trim them in late summer or early autumn. This is because they bleed a heavy flow of sap if pruned when awakening from winter in the spring.
- Deer resistance: Many people love river birch trees because of their deer resistance.
Luckily, river birch trees tend to be more resistant to insects and diseases than other members of the birch family. However, there are a few things to watch out for.
Leaf blight, for instance, is one disease that can impact river birch. The leaf blight fungus infects the tree in conditions that are very wet. Small brown or black spots on the youngest leaves are the first sign, followed by the tree losing up to 40 percent of its leaves during the summer. To fight this river birch tree disease, gather and remove affected leaves that drop to the ground so the fungus will not attack again next year. Proper care and growing conditions can prevent this disease from striking in the first place.
Every spring, these trees can also be visited by two common river birch tree pests: sawfly larva and aphids. Aphids are small insects sometimes called plant lice. They are comparable to grains of rice in size. Sawflies resemble small wasps, and their larvae look like hairless caterpillars. They have green bodies with black dots and are often found lining the edges of river birch tree leaves. In fact, both pests feed on leaves in the spring Leaves of river birch are also often skeletonized by Japanese beetles in the summer in areas with large numbers of beetles. Once the insects move on, well-established trees frequently recover. Pest management is more important for newly-planted trees.