H. E. Grelen
The most beautiful of American trees-that's what Prince Maximilian thought of river birch (Betula nigra) when he toured North America before he became the short-lived Emperor of Mexico (11). Also known as red birch, water birch, or black birch (15), it is the only birch whose range includes the southeastern coastal plain and is also the only spring-fruiting birch. Although the wood has limited usefulness, the tree's beauty makes it an important ornamental, especially at the northern and western extremes of its natural range.
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.
Distribution: 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.
Japanese red birch, black birch, red birch, water birch
Regularity: Regularly occurring
distributions are closely associated with alluvial soils. It is found
from southern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and Maryland west to
eastern Indiana; north in the Mississippi Valley to Wisconsin and
southeastern Minnesota; south to Missouri, Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma,
and eastern Texas; and east to northern Florida [21,22].
The distribution of river birch within this range excludes the
Appalachian mountains, upland areas in central Tennessee and Kentucky,
south-central Missouri, and the lower Mississippi Valley from
southeastern Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico [21,22].
Locations of disjunct populations as reported by Little  include
northeastern Massachussetts/southeastern New Hampshire, western New
York, northern Ohio, northern Illinois, northern Indiana, and
south-central Minnesota. In a study to determine the status of these
disjunct populations, Coyle and others  confirmed the northeastern
Massachussetts/southeastern New Hampshire population and three other
naturally reproducing river birch populations outside of the main
distribution: extreme western North Carolina, eastern Kansas, and
Occurrence in North America
KY LA MD MA MN MS MO NH NJ NY
NC OH OK PA SC TN TX VA WV WI
The native range of river birch.
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.
River birch is a medium-sized, native, deciduous tree. Isolated
specimens have reached 100 feet (30.5 m), but the usual height range is
50 to 80 feet (15.2-24.4 m) and 24 to 36 inches (61-91 cm) d.b.h. .
In Wisconsin, it is usually a small, multistemmed tree . The bark is
separated into thin papery scales, with coarse scales on lower trunks
. It is fairly short-lived [5,34].
River birch occurs in wide range of climatic conditions. It is
primarily a tree of alluvial soils (Entisols) . River birch occurs
largely on lowlands, floodplains, streambanks, and lake margins.
Typical sites are sandbars and new land near streams, inside the natural
levee or front . It is occasionally found on scattered upland sites
. It is positively associated with clay soils . Soils can be
either well- or poorly drained, as long as they are at or near field
capacity year-round [13,24]. River birch often occurs on soils that are
too acid for most other hardwoods (pH range 2 to 4) , but also
occurs on soils of higher pH .
River birch is moderately tolerant to flooding . In a laboratory
experiment, river birch seedlings survived up to 30 days of flooding,
forming adventitious roots and prominent lenticel intumescences .
Of five floodplain species tested, river birch seedlings were moderately
tolerant of inundation (complete coverage), and tolerant of waterlogging
(soil saturated only) . Mature trees exhibited 77 percent survival
after 240 days of flooding, but none survived 730 days . Seedlings
are stunted by extended periods of flooding, but remain healthy if
flooded for less than 24 percent of the growing season. River birch can
occur in soils that are waterlogged about 50 percent of the time [16,24].
Key Plant Community Associations
River birch is found in virtually every bottomland cover type, and its
associates can be considered almost all bottomland plants in the
eastern United States .
River birch is named as an overstory dominant, codominant, or
indicator species in the following publications:
1. The natural forests of Maryland: an explanation of the vegetation map of
2. Forest vegetation of the lower Alabama Piedmont 
3. Land classification in the Blue Ridge province: state-of-the-
science report 
4. Southern swamps and marshes 
5. Classification and evaluation of forest sites in the Cumberland
6. Classification and evaluation of forest sites on the Natchez Trace
State Forest, State Resort Park, and Wildlife Managemant Area in west
7. Plant communities of the Coastal Plain of North Carolina and their
successional relations 
Habitat: Cover Types
This species is known to occur in association with the following cover types (as classified by the Society of American Foresters):
More info for the term: swamp
39 Black ash - American elm - red maple
61 River birch - sycamore
62 Silver maple - American elm
65 Pin oak - sweetgum
87 Sweet gum - yellow-poplar
88 Willow oak - water oak - diamondleaf oak
91 Swamp chestnut oak - cherrybark oak
92 Sweetgum - willow oak
93 Sugarberry - American elm - green ash
94 Sycamore - sweetgum - American elm
95 Black willow
96 Overcup oak - water hickory
This species is known to occur in the following ecosystem types (as named by the U.S. Forest Service in their Forest and Range Ecosystem [FRES] Type classification):
FRES15 Oak - hickory
FRES16 Oak - gum - cypress
FRES17 Elm - ash - cottonwood
Habitat: Plant Associations
This species is known to occur in association with the following plant community types (as classified by Küchler 1964):
K098 Northern floodplain forest
K101 Elm - ash forest
K112 Southern mixed forest
K113 Southern floodplain forest
Soils and Topography
Despite its affinity for water, river birch is only moderately resistant to flooding, a characteristic that may account for its absence on much of the Mississippi River flood plain. Its high tolerance for acid soils is illustrated in Ohio, where it is the primary invader and dominant on stream bottoms made too acid (pH 2 to 4) for other bottom-land trees by coal mine drainage (10).
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.
Associated Forest Cover
sycamore -- Platanus occidentalis (N,O,I,M)
red maple -- Acer rubrum (N,O,I)
silver maple -- Acer saccharinum (O,I,M)
black willow -- Salix nigra (N,O,I)
hazel alder -- Alnus serrulata (N,O,I)
American hornbeam -- Carpinus caroliniana (N,O)
honeylocust -- Gleditsia triacanthos (O,I)
yellow-poplar -- Liriodendron tulipifera (N,O)
black tupelo -- Nyssa syluatica (O,I)
black cherry -- Prunus serotina (N,O)
American elm -- Ulmus americana (O,I)
Other associated species include sugar maple (Acer saccharum), boxelder (Acer negundo), yellow buckeye (Aesculus octandra), water hickory (Carya aquatica), bitternut hickory (C. cordiformis), mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), swamp-privet (Forestiera acuminata), ash (Fraxinus spp.), Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), water-elm (Planera aquatica), eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), swamp cottonwood (Populus heterophylla), swamp white oak Quercus bicolor), overcup oak (Q. lyrata), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), swamp chestnut oak Q. michauxii), pin oak (Q. palustris), northern red oak (Q. rubra), baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), and American basswood Tilia americana).
A forest cover type, River Birch-Sycamore (Society of American Foresters Type 61), has been described as growing along streams or lake shores with several of the associated species named above. River birch also is listed with associated vegetation in Cottonwood (Type 63) and Sycamore-Sweetgum-American Elm (Type 94) but undoubtedly occurs in most bottom-land types within its range (4).
Diseases and Parasites
Fire Management Considerations
which river birch occurs. These forests are dependent on fire exclusion
for successful reproduction. Fire is damaging to most mature hardwoods,
causing wounds that can reduce the vigor and economic value of the trees
Plant Response to Fire
Repeated fires will probably eliminate river birch from a stand. In
Wisconsin, river birch occurred on a number of floodplain locations, but
did not occur in a neighboring low marsh that had been subjected to
repeated grass fires .
Immediate Effect of Fire
Information on the relationship between fire severity and damage to
river birch is lacking. Seedlings and saplings of river birch are
probably killed or top-killed by most surface fires. Severe fires will
injure or kill mature trees. In southern Illinois, a barren on which
river birch occurred was subjected to four prescribed fires from 1969 to
1973, after which no fires of any kind occurred. Large river birch
trees apparently survived these spring fires, but seedlings were killed .
Tree with adventitious-bud root crown/soboliferous species root sucker
Initial-offsite colonizer (off-site, initial community)
River birch occurs in bottomland hardwood forests that are usually
subject only to surface fires. Fire occurs approximately every 5
to 8 years, when climatic drought extends a dry summer into the fall,
creating conditions in which surface fires can cause great damage.
Surface fires in these bottomlands usually move rapidly, consuming
abundant shrub and herbaceous materials. Seedlings and small saplings
of all species are usually killed by these fires. Larger trees can be
scorched, leaving wounds that can develop into catfaces and are points of
entry for rot, stain, and insects. Under extreme conditions, large
trees of all species may be killed .
River birch is ranked intermediate in ecological fire tolerance by
Givnish . This ranking is based on its occurrence on sites that
either have short fire-free intervals or recently experienced fire.
River birch that has been top-killed by fire usually sprouts from the
root crown. Sites cleared by fire may be seeded by nearby trees,
provided that adequate flooding occurs to carry acorns.
Of 13 species tested, river birch bark was intermediate in heat
resistance in the 0.20-inch- (0.508-mm-) thick category, but ranked
relatively lower with increasing bark thicknesses; even though the heat
resistance of river birch bark increases with thickness, other tree
species gain more heat resistance for the same amount of thickness gain
River birch is intolerant of shade. It is an early pioneer on stream
bank alluvium, and requires high soil moisture coupled with no shade for
germination and establishment . River birch may be the initial
colonizer of sandbars, or may establish after sandbars are stabilized by
more flood-tolerant alders (Alnus spp.) or willows (Salix spp.) .
In Maryland, small stream valleys with shallow surface water are
colonized by hazel alder (Alnus serrulata), and then invaded by river
birch . River birch is the most common species on disturbed
streambanks in Tennessee. It readily establishes on the soils exposed
by stream channelization projects and remains important for a number of
years, even after canopy closure . Myers and Buchman  classify
river birch stands as subclimax; river birch usually follows willows and
is replaced by other hardwoods, generally oaks.
Growth Form (according to Raunkiær Life-form classification)
are wind or water disseminated. Water dissemination is probably more
important because water deposits the seeds on moist shores favorable to
germination and establishment . The seeds germinate rapidly in
moist alluvial soil, often in large numbers, forming thickets on
sandbars . The seeds are apparently viable only a few days .
However, Koevenig  reported that seeds with the fruit wall and seed
coat removed will germinate even after 5 months in storage. He
concluded that a germination inhibitor builds up in either the fruit
wall or seed coat.
River birch does not spread vegetatively, but multiple stems arising
from stump sprouts are common . Because of this, river birch is
resilient to flood damage. On a frequently flooded site in Wisconsin,
77 percent of river birch stems were of sprout origin, and the remainder
were from seedlings .
Reaction to Competition
Life History and Behavior
Male catkins are formed on twig tips in the fall and mature the
following April or May. Female catkins appear with the leaves and open
in early spring. The fruit matures in late spring or early summer, and
is dispersed upon maturity .
Seed Production and Dissemination
Seeds can be collected by picking or stripping the "cones" (strobili) while they are still green enough to prevent shattering. Seeds are removed by flailing and screening or fanning.
Flowering and Fruiting
Growth and Yield
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Hybrids Natural hybrids between river birch and paper birch (Betula papyrifera) have been reported but have never been verified and appear unlikely because interspecific hybridization involving river birch is very difficult. River birch has been crossed with
sweet birch (B. lenta), gray birch (B. populifolia), paper birch (B. papyrifera), resin birch (B. glandulosa), and low birch (B. pumila var. glandulifera) and with the following introduced species: B. ermani Cham., B. raddeana Trautv., B. pendula Roth, B. pubescens Ehrh., B. platyphylla Sukachev, and B. maximowicziana Regel. Seed yield and viability have been low and growth has been poor. In general, crossing attempts are more likely to succeed if river birch is the female parent (2).
Barcode data: Betula nigra
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Betula nigra
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status, such as, state noxious status and wetland indicator values.
using even-aged systems . In Mississippi, river birch occurred in a
13-year-old stand of mixed hardwoods that established on an old field.
River birch responded to thinning and exhibited faster growth than
sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), the target species . If left
unpruned, it often becomes multitrunked in its first or second year,
breaking at ground level into several splayed stems .
Clearcutting promotes regeneration of the early seral bottomland
hardwoods in which river birch is found; advance regeneration does not
occur in these intolerant species. To avoid extremes of soil loss and
lowered water quality, stands should not be harvested within 50 feet
(15.2 m) of streams .
River birch is more disease resistant and heat tolerant than other
birches . It is one of a number of deciduous species that are
favored by gypsy moth larvae at all stages of larval development .
Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)
Readily available through commercial nurseries. Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) office for more information. Look in the phone book under ”United States Government”. The Natural Resources Conservation Service will be listed under the subheading “Department of Agriculture.”
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.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Value for rehabilitation of disturbed sites
River birch is used for strip mine reclamation and erosion control .
It is well suited for moderately to poorly drained minesoils,
particularly where soils are too acid for other hardwoods. In Missouri,
river birch has better form on acid sites than it does on better sites
with heavier ground cover . In West Virginia, river birch
established on mine refuse sites that had been covered with a layer of
seed-containing topsoil from neighboring areas. It was not determined
if river birch seeds were in the soil seedbank or disseminated from
nearby trees .
Importance to Livestock and Wildlife
A number of species of birds eat river birch seeds including ruffed
grouse and wild turkey . White-tailed deer browse river birch .
The bottomland hardwoods in which river birch occurs are prime wildlife
habitat, providing nesting sites for waterfowl, and food and cover for
many animals .
Wood Products Value
River birch wood is hard, strong, and close-grained. It is, however, of
limited commercial value since it is usually too knotty to be used for
lumber [7,13]. Its main uses are for local furniture manufacture,
basket materials, small woodenware, and fuel. River birch is
occasionally harvested with other bottomland species for pulpwood ,
and is used in some areas for veneer . Since the wood is strong and
lighter than commercially important birches, it is suitable for
artificial limbs and toys .
Other uses and values
Midwest . It is well suited for damp ground, but is also somewhat
drought tolerant .
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.
Betula nigra (black birch, river birch, water birch) is a species of birch native to the Eastern United States from New Hampshire west to southern Minnesota, and south to northern Florida and west to Texas. 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. B. nigra commonly occurs in flood plains and/or swamps. It is a deciduous tree growing to 25–30 meters (82–98 ft) with a trunk 50 to 150 centimeters (20 to 59 in) in diameter, often with multiple trunks. The bark is variable, usually dark gray-brown to pinkish-brown and scaly, but in some individuals, smooth and creamy pinkish-white, exfoliating in curly papery sheets. The twigs are glabrous or thinly hairy. The leaves are alternate, ovate, 4–8 centimeters (1.6–3.1 in) long and 3–6 centimeters (1.2–2.4 in) broad, with a serrated margin and five to twelve pairs of veins. The flowers are wind-pollinated catkins 3–6 centimeters (1.2–2.4 in) long, the male catkins pendulous, the female catkins erect. The fruit is unusual among birches in maturing in late spring; it is composed of numerous tiny winged seeds packed between the catkin bracts.
Cultivation and uses
While its native habitat is wet ground, it will grow on higher land, and its bark is quite distinctive, making it a favored ornamental tree for landscape use. A number of cultivars with much whiter bark than the normal wild type have been selected for garden planting, including 'Heritage' and 'Dura Heat'; these are notable as the only white-barked birches resistant to the bronze birch borer Agrilus anxius in warm areas of the southeastern United States of America.
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Native Americans used Betula nigra medicinally to treat dysentery, colds, and milky urine (D. E. Moerman 1986).
Names and Taxonomy
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