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River Birch



River Birch
Betula nigra

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski

Wintertime flowers provide a happy place for those of us who wish to escape from the short, cold days of winter. Oftentimes, after the blooms fade the shrub or tree disappears in the landscape as it yields the stage to flowering plants that bloom later in the season.

This now-you-see-me-now-you-don't feature is the result of the ephemeral nature of flowers. If you're interested in year-round ornamental interest, you must consider bark.

One of my favorite native trees that offers 24/7 beauty is the river birch (Betula nigra). This frequent denizen of moist areas – banks of streams, rivers, and bottomlands – can reach a mature height and spread of 40 to 70 ft.  It's commonly grown as a multi-trunked specimen to showcase its attractive exfoliating reddish to cinnamon brown bark that peels away in large papery sheets. On older trees, the darker grayish-brown bark splits into coarse shredded-looking plates.

The bark of the native species is attractive, but if you're looking for spectacular, consider cultivars of river birch that have been selected for this trait. 'Cully' (Heritage®) is a northern selection that showcases creamy-white inner bark on young trees and cream, orange, gray or lavender on older ones. A lower-growing, heat-tolerant river birch, Dura-Heat® ('BNMTF'), sports chalky tan to beige-colored inner bark and has smaller leaves than the species; it is less prone to drought stress than 'Cully' or the species.

A cute, dwarf selection, 'Little King' (Fox Valley®), showcases bark that's similar to the species, but it only grows 10 to 12 ft. high after 15 to 20 years. A real show-stopper is the weeping form of river birch, 'Summer Cascade,' with its cascading shiny brown branches and cream-salmon-cinnamon-brown peeling trunk.

River birch and its cultivars will show you that bark is beautiful all of the time.

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