River birch at winter’s end

Judith Adam

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The peeling bark of river birch (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
The peeling bark of river birch (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
The peeling bark of river birch (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

Before buds burst out in leaf, look around your garden and consider if it has enough winter interest. We make our gardens in a cold climate, and having attractive plants in winter is crucial for gardeners waiting patiently for the arrival of spring. If you need more winter features, nurseries will soon be open and you can make some purchases for a better winter garden next year. (I know from experience that this is much harder to judge in mid or late summer, when memories of winter are too distant.)

I like cold weather and winter features, and always consider what a woody plant will look like from November through March. If I had to select one plant that has been most attractive through the cold months, it would be my river birch tree (Betula nigra, Zone 4) in the front garden, with sweet little catkins in spring and small shiny foliage in summer. River birch is a big tree, and I’ve put it along the front walkway, so it’s constantly in view and near enough to touch as people pass by. Unlike other birch trees, it’s not dazzling white, but has a soft tan bark with elaborate exfoliation. The colour changes to pinky taupe when the setting sun falls on it, and the winter profile shows off delicate twiggery with pointed buds.

River birch has a pyramidal, multi-trunk shape, with many low twigs and branches. I’ve pruned it up, removing low  branches to better display its beautiful bark. It’s fast growing, to about 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 m), and makes dappled light around its base. Birch trees like water and I’ve planted it near perennial beds and lawn, where it can share frequent irrigation. (Periods of summer heat and drought haven’t set it back at all.) Woody plant expert Michael Dirr says river birch is probably the most pest-free of all the birches, and I’ve found this to be true. Bronze birch borers just pass on by, and I haven’t seen any leaf miners on it. Dirr recommends the tree for slightly acidic soils (pH 6.5 or lower), but my slightly alkaline soil (pH 7.3) seems to suit it just fine. If I could have only one winter feature plant, river birch is it.


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