The river birch, Betula nigra, is a bit of a black sheep. While it has many of the same visual characteristics of other birch trees, it is unique in many ways too. Typically, birch trees do best in the cooler climates of the northern United States — not so with the river birch. The river birch loves the heat, making it popular in the south. Most birch trees are vulnerable to insects and infestation. Again, the river birch prevails; it has a considerable resistance to the bronze birch borer. Birch trees are most commonly happy in the lowlands, where drainage is good. The mighty river birch can succeed at high elevations and vary levels of drainage and wetness. For these reasons, the river birch is a favorite at Southeastern Growers!
Commonly found in swamps and floodplains, the river birch has a wide natural habitat. It can grow in almost any setting in the United States. As we mentioned above, one of its most useful and attractive qualities is its resistance to heat. The mental image of birch tree may be the whitish bark blending into a snowy forest, but the river birch loves the heat. A specific cultivar we prefer, ‘Dura Heat’, emphasizes this quality while expressing the best visual interest as well — the white bark. Another advantage of the ‘Dura Heat’ is its even higher resistance to insects and disease.
River birch are fast growing small-to-medium sized trees. They can be cultivated as a single trunk tree or as a multi-trunk. The Dura Heat has an excellent foliage, letting it serve as both a shade tree as well as in a rain garden. It prefers, as its name suggests, wet soils and full sun. But again, river birch are very versatile trees.
Be sure to avoid pruning in the spring while the sap is running. The sap of river birch has been harvested by Native Americans for centuries. The sap is boiled down to produce a sweetener quite similar to maple syrup.
We also have the ‘Heritage’ cultivar, which grows taller and with a bit less spread. Both the ‘Heritage’ and the ‘Dura Heat’ have the attractive white bark and excellent versatility. As always, check out our website to learn!