River Birch (Nigra)

The River Birch (Nigra) is generally described as a perennial tree. This is native to the U.S. (United States) has its most active growth period in the spring and summer . The greatest bloom is usually observed in the mid spring, with fruit and seed production starting in the spring and continuing until spring. Leaves are not retained year to year. The River Birch (Nigra) has a short life span relative to most other plant species and a rapid growth rate. At maturity, the typical River Birch (Nigra) will reach up to 70 feet high, with a maximum height at 20 years of 35 feet.

The River Birch (Nigra) is easily found in nurseries, garden stores and other plant dealers and distributors. It can be propagated by bare root, container, cuttings, seed. It has a rapid ability to spread through seed production and the seedlings have high vigor. Note that cold stratification is not required for seed germination and the plant cannot survive exposure to temperatures below -23°F. has low tolerance to drought and restricted water conditions.

Uses of : Landscaping, Medicinal, Culinary, etc.

Economic: River birch sap can be fermented to make birch beer or vinegar. The wood is used to manufacture inexpensive furniture, woodenware, wooden shoes, basket materials, toys, staves, and fuel.

Ethnobotanic: The leaves were chewed, or used as an infusion in the treatment of dysentery. An infusion of the bark was used to treat stomach problems and difficult urination (Moerman 1998).

Landscaping &Wildlife: Betula nigra is a very attractive ornamental tree. It is a desirable specimen for estates, golf courses, parks, and public grounds. Many species of birds eat the seeds including wild turkey and grouse. The leaves are browsed by white-tailed deer.

Conservation: River birch is used for strip mine reclamation and erosion control (Grelen 1990). It is used in forested riparian buffers to help reduce stream bank erosion, protect water quality, and enhance aquatic environments.

General Characteristics

General: Birch family (Betulaceae). River birch is a deciduous medium to large-sized native tree. The leaves are alternate, double serrated, wedge-shaped, and sharp pointed. The flowers are unisexual, borne in separate male and female catkins on the same tree. The bark is light brown to buff, paperlike; exfoliating on young trees, turning to scaly bark on older trees.

Required Growing Conditions

River birch is distributed throughout North America. It extends from southern New England, west to Kansas and Minnesota, and south to Texas and Florida. For current distribution, please consult the Plant profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.

Adaptation River birch can survive on drier soils, although it is best adapted to moist soils and is usually found along stream banks and in swampy bottomlands that are periodically flooded. Maximum development is reached in fertile areas with a pH of 6.5 to 4.0. It is intolerant of shade and requires full sunlight.

Cultivation and Care

Propagation by Seed: Sow seeds in containers or seed trays containing a seed germination medium to which a slow release fertilizer is added. Firm the medium and sow seeds thinly and evenly on top, and cover to desired depth with planting medium (Heuser 1997). Place pots in a sunny location in a cold frame. When seedlings are large enough to handle they should be placed into individual pots and grown in a cold frame for their first winter.

General Upkeep and Control

Fertilize young trees in late winter before new growth begins to ensure faster growth. Don’t prune this birch and other birches until summer because they are “bleeders” and should not be cut when the sap is flowing.

River birch is quite disease resistant but has severe problems in early spring with aphids and is favored by gypsy moth larvae. BEOC2Nursery grown seedlings should be planted onto moist sites. The seedlings should be transplanted when they are one to two years old. The best time for transplanting is in the spring as the buds begin to turn green.

Plant Basics
Growth Rate Rapid
General Type Tree
Growth Period Spring, Summer
Growth Duration Perennial
Lifespan Short
Plant Nativity Native to U.S.
Commercial Availability Routinely Available
Physical Characteristics
Bloom Period Mid Spring
Displays Fall Colors No
Shape/Growth Form Multiple Stem
Drought Tolerance Low
Shade Tolerance Intolerant
Height When Mature 70
Vegetative Spread Slow
Flower Color Brown
Flower Conspicuousness No
Fruit/Seed Abundance High
Fruit/Seed Seasonality Spring Spring
Seed Spread Rate Rapid
Gardening Characteristics
Propagations (Ways to Grow) Bare Root, Container, Cuttings, Seed
Moisture Requirements High
Cold Stratification Required No
Minimum Temperature -23
Soil Depth for Roots 20
Toxic to Nearby Plants No
Toxic to Livestock No
After-Harvest Resprout Ability Yes
Responds to Coppicing No
Growth Requirements
pH Range 3–6 pH
Precipitation Range 30–30 inches/yr
Planting Density 300–700 indiv./acre
Soil Textures Fine, Medium
Soil Depth for Roots 20
Minimum Frost-Free Days 150 day(s)
Salinity Tolerance None
CaCO3 Tolerance None
Sustainability & Use
Leaf Retention No
Palatability Medium
Fire Resistant No

Source: USDA, NRCS, PLANTS Database, plants.usda.gov.
National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA