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Home > Resources > North Carolina Trees > River Birch

River Birch

(Betula nigra L.)


River birch, or red birch as it sometimes is called, is the only native birch found at low elevations in the South. It is commonly found, as its name implies, along waterways, inhabiting deep, rich soils throughout the state, except in the higher mountains.

River birch leaves are roughly oval, pointed, 1 1/2 to 3 inches long, with double-toothed margins. It is commonly found on banks of streams, near ponds and near swamps. It will grow to heights of 70 to 80 feet and diameters of I to 3 feet. The crown is irregular and picturesque and is divided where the arching limbs spread from the main trunk.

The fruit, a strobile, is cylindrical, 1 to 1 1/2 inches long and 1/2 inch thick. It grows erect (see the foreward for a drawing of a strobile). River birch is the only birch that produces mature fruit in the spring.

The bark provides a ready means of distinguishing this tree. It varies from reddish brown to cinnamon-red in color and peels back in tough papery layers. These layers persist on the trunk, presenting a ragged and distinctive appearance. Unlike the bark of other

birches, the thin, papery layers usually are covered with a gray powder. On older trees, the bark on the main trunk becomes thick, deeply furrowed and reddish-brown.

The wood is quite hard and is used in the manufacturing of furniture and other products, where its close-grained properties make it valuable. However, if river birch develops while arching out over a stream, its wood is not acceptable for use in furniture and other products requiring a smooth finish.

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