Featured Favorite: River Birch (Betula nigra)

Written by Jackie Wedeking, Communications and Marketing Manager

My husband and I both dabble in photography, and one of our favorite pastimes is to take ‘photo walks.’ We’ll pick a destination in nature to go hiking, and then get lost in our photography. It would be unfair to call one of these ventures a hike because once we get to a picturesque spot, we tend to stay in a ten-foot-radius, and if either one of us is using a macro lens (a lens that magnifies), we might not leave a four-foot-radius. There’s just so much to see in the woods once you really take a moment to look—from bugs and moss to the bark on a tree!


River birch (Betula nigra) is one of my favorite photography subjects. The brown bark naturally peels back—unveiling a smooth bark underneath. It provides an interesting texture in the landscape—especially during winter and early spring when the trees are dormant.


 A childlike curiosity may feed the desire to pull the exterior bark off, but please refrain. Trees Forever experts emphasize that removing bark is bad for the tree because the bark helps protect the tree.


As the tree ages, the bark’s coloration and flakiness changes—and it becomes harder and more furrowed.


The exact purpose of exfoliating bark is still a bit of mystery, but tree experts have a few explanations on why the bark peels back. The bark helps trees rid themselves of pests like scale and aphids, as well as harmful fungus and bacteria. It also helps reduce the amount of lichens and moss that grows on the tree.


While this species tolerates a wide variety of sites, it prefers moist soils. The river birch received its name from its common location along the river, and therefore, it is a great option for a riparian buffer strip or in a yard with wet soil.


In the spring, the tree also produces a feast of small, brown hairy seeds for birds and rodents—which means I have new models for my photo shoot!


My appreciation for this tree may have started because of its outward beauty, but as I learn more about the river birch, my gratitude grows to new heights because this lovely tree provides so many environmental benefits—from improving water quality to providing food for wildlife.

River Birch