Index of Species Information
SPECIES: Betula nigra
SPECIES: Betula nigra
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION :
Sullivan, Janet. 1993. Betula nigra. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online].
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station,
Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available:
SCS PLANT CODE :
COMMON NAMES :
The currently accepted scientific name for river birch is Betula nigra
L. [22,35]. There are no accepted subspecies, varieties, or forms.
LIFE FORM :
FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS :
No special status
OTHER STATUS :
DISTRIBUTION AND OCCURRENCE
SPECIES: Betula nigra
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION :
River birch is found throughout the southeastern United States; local
distributions are closely associated with alluvial soils. It is found
from southern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and Maryland west to
eastern Indiana; north in the Mississippi Valley to Wisconsin and
southeastern Minnesota; south to Missouri, Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma,
and eastern Texas; and east to northern Florida [21,22].
The distribution of river birch within this range excludes the
Appalachian mountains, upland areas in central Tennessee and Kentucky,
south-central Missouri, and the lower Mississippi Valley from
southeastern Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico [21,22].
Locations of disjunct populations as reported by Little  include
northeastern Massachussetts/southeastern New Hampshire, western New
York, northern Ohio, northern Illinois, northern Indiana, and
south-central Minnesota. In a study to determine the status of these
disjunct populations, Coyle and others  confirmed the northeastern
Massachussetts/southeastern New Hampshire population and three other
naturally reproducing river birch populations outside of the main
distribution: extreme western North Carolina, eastern Kansas, and
FRES15 Oak - hickory
FRES16 Oak - gum - cypress
FRES17 Elm - ash - cottonwood
AL AR CT DE FL GA IL IN IA KS
KY LA MD MA MN MS MO NH NJ NY
NC OH OK PA SC TN TX VA WV WI
BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS :
KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS :
K098 Northern floodplain forest
K101 Elm - ash forest
K112 Southern mixed forest
K113 Southern floodplain forest
SAF COVER TYPES :
39 Black ash - American elm - red maple
61 River birch - sycamore
62 Silver maple - American elm
65 Pin oak - sweetgum
87 Sweet gum - yellow-poplar
88 Willow oak - water oak - diamondleaf oak
91 Swamp chestnut oak - cherrybark oak
92 Sweetgum - willow oak
93 Sugarberry - American elm - green ash
94 Sycamore - sweetgum - American elm
95 Black willow
96 Overcup oak - water hickory
SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES :
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES :
River birch is found in virtually every bottomland cover type, and its
associates can be considered almost all bottomland plants in the
eastern United States .
River birch is named as an overstory dominant, codominant, or
indicator species in the following publications:
1. The natural forests of Maryland: an explanation of the vegetation map of
2. Forest vegetation of the lower Alabama Piedmont 
3. Land classification in the Blue Ridge province: state-of-the-
science report 
4. Southern swamps and marshes 
5. Classification and evaluation of forest sites in the Cumberland
6. Classification and evaluation of forest sites on the Natchez Trace
State Forest, State Resort Park, and Wildlife Managemant Area in west
7. Plant communities of the Coastal Plain of North Carolina and their
successional relations 
SPECIES: Betula nigra
WOOD PRODUCTS VALUE :
River birch wood is hard, strong, and close-grained. It is, however, of
limited commercial value since it is usually too knotty to be used for
lumber [7,13]. Its main uses are for local furniture manufacture,
basket materials, small woodenware, and fuel. River birch is
occasionally harvested with other bottomland species for pulpwood ,
and is used in some areas for veneer . Since the wood is strong and
lighter than commercially important birches, it is suitable for
artificial limbs and toys .
IMPORTANCE TO LIVESTOCK AND WILDLIFE :
A number of species of birds eat river birch seeds including ruffed
grouse and wild turkey . White-tailed deer browse river birch .
The bottomland hardwoods in which river birch occurs are prime wildlife
habitat, providing nesting sites for waterfowl, and food and cover for
many animals .
NUTRITIONAL VALUE :
COVER VALUE :
VALUE FOR REHABILITATION OF DISTURBED SITES :
River birch is used for strip mine reclamation and erosion control .
It is well suited for moderately to poorly drained minesoils,
particularly where soils are too acid for other hardwoods. In Missouri,
river birch has better form on acid sites than it does on better sites
with heavier ground cover . In West Virginia, river birch
established on mine refuse sites that had been covered with a layer of
seed-containing topsoil from neighboring areas. It was not determined
if river birch seeds were in the soil seedbank or disseminated from
nearby trees .
OTHER USES AND VALUES :
River birch is planted as an ornamental, especially in the Northeast and
Midwest . It is well suited for damp ground, but is also somewhat
drought tolerant .
OTHER MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS :
River birch is not planted for commercial purposes, but could be managed
using even-aged systems . In Mississippi, river birch occurred in a
13-year-old stand of mixed hardwoods that established on an old field.
River birch responded to thinning and exhibited faster growth than
sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), the target species . If left
unpruned, it often becomes multitrunked in its first or second year,
breaking at ground level into several splayed stems .
Clearcutting promotes regeneration of the early seral bottomland
hardwoods in which river birch is found; advance regeneration does not
occur in these intolerant species. To avoid extremes of soil loss and
lowered water quality, stands should not be harvested within 50 feet
(15.2 m) of streams .
River birch is more disease resistant and heat tolerant than other
birches . It is one of a number of deciduous species that are
favored by gypsy moth larvae at all stages of larval development .
BOTANICAL AND ECOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS
SPECIES: Betula nigra
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS :
River birch is a medium-sized, native, deciduous tree. Isolated
specimens have reached 100 feet (30.5 m), but the usual height range is
50 to 80 feet (15.2-24.4 m) and 24 to 36 inches (61-91 cm) d.b.h. .
In Wisconsin, it is usually a small, multistemmed tree . The bark is
separated into thin papery scales, with coarse scales on lower trunks
. It is fairly short-lived [5,34].
RAUNKIAER LIFE FORM :
REGENERATION PROCESSES :
Good seed crops are usually produced annually . The winged seeds
are wind or water disseminated. Water dissemination is probably more
important because water deposits the seeds on moist shores favorable to
germination and establishment . The seeds germinate rapidly in
moist alluvial soil, often in large numbers, forming thickets on
sandbars . The seeds are apparently viable only a few days .
However, Koevenig  reported that seeds with the fruit wall and seed
coat removed will germinate even after 5 months in storage. He
concluded that a germination inhibitor builds up in either the fruit
wall or seed coat.
River birch does not spread vegetatively, but multiple stems arising
from stump sprouts are common . Because of this, river birch is
resilient to flood damage. On a frequently flooded site in Wisconsin,
77 percent of river birch stems were of sprout origin, and the remainder
were from seedlings .
SITE CHARACTERISTICS :
River birch occurs in wide range of climatic conditions. It is
primarily a tree of alluvial soils (Entisols) . River birch occurs
largely on lowlands, floodplains, streambanks, and lake margins.
Typical sites are sandbars and new land near streams, inside the natural
levee or front . It is occasionally found on scattered upland sites
. It is positively associated with clay soils . Soils can be
either well- or poorly drained, as long as they are at or near field
capacity year-round [13,24]. River birch often occurs on soils that are
too acid for most other hardwoods (pH range 2 to 4) , but also
occurs on soils of higher pH .
River birch is moderately tolerant to flooding . In a laboratory
experiment, river birch seedlings survived up to 30 days of flooding,
forming adventitious roots and prominent lenticel intumescences .
Of five floodplain species tested, river birch seedlings were moderately
tolerant of inundation (complete coverage), and tolerant of waterlogging
(soil saturated only) . Mature trees exhibited 77 percent survival
after 240 days of flooding, but none survived 730 days . Seedlings
are stunted by extended periods of flooding, but remain healthy if
flooded for less than 24 percent of the growing season. River birch can
occur in soils that are waterlogged about 50 percent of the time [16,24].
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS :
River birch is intolerant of shade. It is an early pioneer on stream
bank alluvium, and requires high soil moisture coupled with no shade for
germination and establishment . River birch may be the initial
colonizer of sandbars, or may establish after sandbars are stabilized by
more flood-tolerant alders (Alnus spp.) or willows (Salix spp.) .
In Maryland, small stream valleys with shallow surface water are
colonized by hazel alder (Alnus serrulata), and then invaded by river
birch . River birch is the most common species on disturbed
streambanks in Tennessee. It readily establishes on the soils exposed
by stream channelization projects and remains important for a number of
years, even after canopy closure . Myers and Buchman  classify
river birch stands as subclimax; river birch usually follows willows and
is replaced by other hardwoods, generally oaks.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT :
Male catkins are formed on twig tips in the fall and mature the
following April or May. Female catkins appear with the leaves and open
in early spring. The fruit matures in late spring or early summer, and
is dispersed upon maturity .
SPECIES: Betula nigra
FIRE ECOLOGY OR ADAPTATIONS :
River birch occurs in bottomland hardwood forests that are usually
subject only to surface fires. Fire occurs approximately every 5
to 8 years, when climatic drought extends a dry summer into the fall,
creating conditions in which surface fires can cause great damage.
Surface fires in these bottomlands usually move rapidly, consuming
abundant shrub and herbaceous materials. Seedlings and small saplings
of all species are usually killed by these fires. Larger trees can be
scorched, leaving wounds that can develop into catfaces and are points of
entry for rot, stain, and insects. Under extreme conditions, large
trees of all species may be killed .
River birch is ranked intermediate in ecological fire tolerance by
Givnish . This ranking is based on its occurrence on sites that
either have short fire-free intervals or recently experienced fire.
River birch that has been top-killed by fire usually sprouts from the
root crown. Sites cleared by fire may be seeded by nearby trees,
provided that adequate flooding occurs to carry acorns.
Of 13 species tested, river birch bark was intermediate in heat
resistance in the 0.20-inch- (0.508-mm-) thick category, but ranked
relatively lower with increasing bark thicknesses; even though the heat
resistance of river birch bark increases with thickness, other tree
species gain more heat resistance for the same amount of thickness gain
FIRE REGIMES :
Find fire regime information for the plant communities in which this
species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under
"Find Fire Regimes".
POSTFIRE REGENERATION STRATEGY :
Tree with adventitious-bud root crown/soboliferous species root sucker
Initial-offsite colonizer (off-site, initial community)
SPECIES: Betula nigra
IMMEDIATE FIRE EFFECT ON PLANT :
Information on the relationship between fire severity and damage to
river birch is lacking. Seedlings and saplings of river birch are
probably killed or top-killed by most surface fires. Severe fires will
injure or kill mature trees. In southern Illinois, a barren on which
river birch occurred was subjected to four prescribed fires from 1969 to
1973, after which no fires of any kind occurred. Large river birch
trees apparently survived these spring fires, but seedlings were killed .
DISCUSSION AND QUALIFICATION OF FIRE EFFECT :
PLANT RESPONSE TO FIRE :
Repeated fires will probably eliminate river birch from a stand. In
Wisconsin, river birch occurred on a number of floodplain locations, but
did not occur in a neighboring low marsh that had been subjected to
repeated grass fires .
DISCUSSION AND QUALIFICATION OF PLANT RESPONSE :
FIRE MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS :
Prescribed fires are not recommended for the bottomland hardwoods in
which river birch occurs. These forests are dependent on fire exclusion
for successful reproduction. Fire is damaging to most mature hardwoods,
causing wounds that can reduce the vigor and economic value of the trees
SPECIES: Betula nigra
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