river birch
Betula nigra

Secondary Names:
red birch

Leaf Type: Deciduous
Texas Native:
Tree Description:

Usually a medium-sized tree to 40 feet tall and one or more trunks 8" to 12" in diameter, but can reach heights of up to 90 feet, with an oval crown of drooping branches. Trunks are wrapped with peeling sheets of papery bark.

Range/Site Description:

Found in East Texas, usually on rich soils along stream banks, or at the edge of swamps, ponds, lakes, and other wet areas.


Simple, alternate, 2" to 3.5" long and 1" to 2" wide, ovate or somewhat triangular-shaped, with a double-toothed margin and a wedge-shaped base. The upper surface is dark green and shiny, the lower surface paler and pubescent.


Male and female flowers borne in early spring, separately on the same tree; male catkins at the ends of the twigs, drooping, brown, 1" to 3.5" long; female catkins are smaller, 0.5" long, greenish, upright, and borne in the leaf axils.


A cylindrical cone, about 1" long, densely crowded with tiny winged nutlets that ripen from May to June.


Thin, tight, and grayish with horizontal lenticels when young, but quickly developing the reddish, peeling layers that identify the species. Layers persist on the trunk, presenting a ragged and quite distinctive appearance. Unlike the bark of other birches the thin paper layers are usually covered with a gray powder. On older trees, the bark on the main trunk becomes thick, with broad plates divided by deep, rough, black furrows.


Strong and fairly close-grained, the wood has been used in the manufacture of woodenware, turned objects, and wagon hubs. Now chiefly sold in the nursery trade as a popular landscape specimen.

Similar Species:

Hazel alder (Alnus serrulata) grows in wet areas and has similar flowers and fruit, but has oval leaves and bark that does not peel like river birch; some hawthorn species (Crataegus spp.) have similar leaves, but usually have stout thorns.

Interesting Facts:

The birch genus (Betula) has several U.S. species with colorful common names: gray (B. populifolia), white or paper (B. papyrifera), black (B. lenta), yellow (B. alleghaniensis), and red or river (B. nigra).

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