River Birch

Betula nigra

River Birch

River Birch Trees – Betula nigra

A River Birch is a very rapid grower.  It’s one of the most popular trees for Georgia conditions, adaptable to most landscape sites. [1]  It is one of the few heat-tolerant birches in a family of mostly cold-weather trees which do not thrive in USDA Zone 6 and up. River Birches commonly occur in flood plains and/or swamps. [2]

Years ago we tried planting several trees along one side of the yard that was always damp from rain.  They all died because of root rot.  Then we planted three river birch trees and they now tower 50 over the yard.

River Birch

Multiple trunks showcasing the bark

Then we put in a small pond 30 – 40 feet from the base of one of the trees.  We couldn’t figure out why, after a couple of years, the pond level starting dropping unusually fast in the summer.  Our landscaper suggested that the River Birch was ‘sipping’ from our pond.  He was right.  roots from the tree had grown under the path and over the pond liner into the pond. Trees can ‘hear water’ and their roots will find the source. [3] This helps explain why older terra cotta sewer drains running from your house to the street will get clogged with roots.

A number of cultivars with much whiter bark than the normal wild type have been selected for garden planting.  Native Americans used the boiled sap as a sweetener similar to maple syrup, and the inner bark as a survival food. It is usually too contorted and knotty to be of value as a timber tree.

The video below is of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drinking sap from a River Birch tree.

Identification and Description

It is a deciduous tree growing to 80–100 feet with a trunk 20 to 60 inches in diameter, often with multiple trunks. [2]   Young trees have a handsome, exfoliating, reddish-brown bark that ages to a dark gray-brown color. [1]

Adapted to Georgia hardiness zones:    6a, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b.      Atlanta is zone 7b [1]

Supported Wildlife and Other Uses

Birds and small mammals eat the seeds. [4]

Champion River Birch Trees in Atlanta and Georgia


Atlanta Champion Trees – full list
Georgia Champion Trees – full list
Intown Hawk – Condensed Atlanta and Georgia List

References and Additional Information

[1]  UGA Extension: Native Plants for Georgia Part I: Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines (B 987) – River Birch
[2]  Wikipedia: Betula nigra
[3]  Horizon Magazine: Plants Can ‘Hear’ Running Water
[4] Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Betula nigra
[5] Missouri Botanical Garden: Betula nigra