River birch (‘Betula nigra’) is a very handsome tree native to the Eastern United States from New Hampshire to Florida and west to Texas and Minnesota. A fast-growing medium to large tree, River birch often reach 40 to 70 feet in height with a 40 to 50’ spread. Leaves are small, about 3” long, somewhat triangular with double-toothed (serrated) edges. Shiny green in summer, leaves turn a buttery yellow in fall.
As the name suggests, River birch grows naturally along stream beds, in swampy bottomlands or in other moist areas that periodically flood. A descriptive phrase used for trees like River birch and other trees with roots that do well with a lot of moisture is that “they like wet feet”.
River birch is also a popular landscape tree, performing well in large lawn areas in residential landscapes, on campuses, golf courses and in parks. The “clumping” varieties, which have three or more trunks, are particularly attractive as specimen trees (trees that are used as focal points in a landscape).
The River birch in the photo is a cultivar (a variety that is developed for distinguished traits that reproduce) called ‘Heritage’. Heritage river birch have distinctive, exfoliating bark in colors from salmon to cinnamon to grayish brown, that peels naturally in papery sheets or blocks from the trunk and larger branches to expose the whiter inner bark. (Don’t be tempted to peel the bark off, though, since that would harm the tree!)
This tree was planted in a residential front yard on Traincroft Rd by the City as part of Medford’s “Back-of-the-Sidewalk Tree Planting Program”. The program was initiated in Medford in 2011 under a Massachusetts state law called MA General Laws Chapter 87, which allows cities and towns to plant trees on private property, within twenty feet of the sidewalk, with written consent of the homeowner. The Back-of-the-Sidewalk Program is most often used as an option for planting of trees where it may not otherwise be possible in a sidewalk situation due to lack of space, overhead wires, or other factors that inhibit sidewalk tree plantings. The trees generally perform better since they have more favorable growing conditions and have less stress than typical sidewalk-planted trees.
This particular River birch was planted just six years ago, and is a testament to the benefits of planting back of the sidewalk. It is doing extremely well, providing enjoyment to the neighborhood and passers-by, as well as supplying environmental benefits to Medford as part of our urban forest.
– Submitted by Aggie Tuden, Medford Tree Warden