River Birches; Look Good and are Easy to Care For
River birches (Betula nigra) are a less common or popular tree compared to many others, but that may be more by accident, than real knowledge. Ask most homeowners to describe an oak, maple, or even a hickory, and you will get a fair to good description. They will describe these as deciduous (lose leaves in the fall) trees with large, lobed leaves that produce beautiful fall colors of red, orange and purples. Ask these same homeowners about river birches and they may convey a quizzical look.
River Birches are Trees of Character and Grace
River birches are deciduous trees suitable for zones 4-9. They have small leaves arranged linearly off main side branches and secondary side branches. Since the leaves are small, they are not suitable for rendering dense shade. If someone needs dense shade, then oaks and maples are preferred. River birches filter sunlight quite well and provide some shade.
The trees are usually cultivated with three to five main trunks arising from a central point and have a unique look. Multiple main trunks are common with as many as 6-10 trunks, but they are typically pruned to a final 3-5 trunk number. The trees grow quickly reaching heights of 40-50 feet and upper canopy spreads of about 40 feet.
The bark of river birches is magnificent and showy. It is bright white-gray in color. As the bark matures, it peels back and away slightly to give a curled look with a salmon-red coloring (see photos below and double-click to enlarge).
Landscaping with River Birches
River birches are usually purchased as 2-3 year old young trees. Location and placement of these trees is important . Here are some important landscape thoughts.
- River birches grow quickly, and they can span toward a house at an angle that positions them too close to your property. A minimum distance of 25-50 feet from the foundation is recommended.
- Clustering of three river birches looks terrific and dramatic and should be considered. Space the triangular cluster about 10-20 feet apart.
- Linear placement of river birches, also provides character and grace.
- Proximity to a stream or river is not required. The trees do well with ordinary water availability.
Planting River Birches
River birches are easy to plant and care for. They are easy to maintain over the years and reward with their elegance and grace.
- Stake locate the positions of the trees. Remember that a site at least 25-50 feet away from the house foundation is important because the trees grow quickly and become large.
- Dig a hole that is about 25% greater than the diameter of the ball or pot of the plant.
- Dig the hole deep enough so that it can be even or slightly below the pot depth when the tree is moved into the hole.
- Place sufficient peat moss or planting mix soil into the base and sides of the hole and add 1-2 cups of 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 fertilizer. Mix thoroughly and spread.
- Add the tree into the center of the hole. Transfer rapidly and keep roots moist with a watering can or hose.
- Make sure the tree is properly positioned. Add additional soil as needed and water thoroughly.
- Layer with mulch to maintain moisture, and water completely once or twice a week.
Maintenance and Pruning
Maintenance of the trees includes fertilization in early spring. Fertilize with a few cups of the triple 8 or 10 fertilizer that is applied in a broad circle at the far edge drip line of the tree leaf canopy, or use tree stake fertilizers.
River birches are relatively easy to maintain. Pruning includes removal of all the low side branches in late winter or very early spring. Lopping shears or bypass pruners work well. Most river birches are pruned at the side branches. Proceed upward and remove side branches each year during as they grow out from the main trunk. This is done each year up to a growing height of 6-10 feet. In this manner the trees look magnificent and elegant as shown in photos below.