The river birch is famous for its flaky peeling bark.
River birch is an upright, slender tree, often with a divided trunk, and reaching up to 50-70 ft (15-21 m) high. Young trees have shaggy reddish brown bark that flakes and peels in layers into small pieces. In older specimens the bark becomes grayish and fissured. The young branches are very smooth, slender, and reddish brown. The leaves are diamond shaped, to 3 in (8 cm) long, and glossy green, turning yellow in autumn. In early spring, river birch bears 3 in (8 cm) long yellowish male catkins that are quite showy. The female catkins, on the same trees, are shorter and more erect.
River birch's multiple trunks, pleasing form and compact stature make it a good choice for smaller yards and tight spaces.
Location Betula nigra is most commonly found along streams and in wet bottomland areas. Its native range extends from southern New England, west to Kansas, and south to Texas and Florida.
Light: River birch thrives in full sun to partial shade. Moisture: River birch prefers moist, acidic soils. Once established, it does fine in normal garden soils, but may wilt under drought conditions. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4-9. Propagation: Start seeds outdoors in autumn. Softwood cuttings can be rooted in spring and hardwood cuttings in summer.
River birch foliage changes from medium green to yellow before dropping from the tree in late autumn.
River birch is an excellent tree for small properties, especially in wetter areas by a pond or along a stream. It grows rapidly and has attractive foliage, twigs, and bark. Plant river birch where the showy exfoliating bark on the trunk can be appreciated. I have one here in my North Florida landscape in the center of a bed of native wild flowers including Florida mountain mint, Indian pink, wild columbine and Indian wood oats. I keep the branches pruned off for the first 10 ft (3 m) or so, to maximize the effect of the handsome bark.
Once established, river birch requires very little care. With its slender twigs, shiny leaves that turn yellow in autumn, and showy bark, river birch makes a nice, small specimen tree. The tree seems to shimmer as the leaves move in the wind.