River Birch Trees

Plus the Fall Foliage of Other Types of Birches

Leaves showing fall foliage of river birch tree.
River birch trees have yellow fall foliage. David Beaulieu

Betula species such as river birch trees (Betula nigra) can be excellent selections for fall-foliage specimens. Below, you will read about several members of this species. The purpose of this article is to suggest to homeowners possible trees to grow to achieve maximum autumn color in the yard. 

Fall Foliage of River Birch Trees

"River" birch is so called because, in its native habitat, it is often found growing near rivers.

An alternate common name is "black" birch, which is reflected in the species name, nigra (Latin for "black"). This is a reference to its bark, which starts out salmon but turns darker as it matures. Fall foliage color is yellow. 

River birch trees can be grown in planting zones 4-9 to provide the landscape with fall foliage. Native to the Eastern U.S., they will reach a height of 40-70 feet with a spread of 25-35 feet. These specimens are full-sun trees, but they will also tolerate partial shade.

This tree’s peeling bark is as attractive as its fall foliage. It sheds its bark like the paper birch (see below), but the bark of the latter is more iconic, due to its brilliant white color. River birch trees tolerate the summer heat better than paper birch trees.

Fall Foliage of Gray, Paper Birch Trees

Another birch tree grown as much for its peeling bark as for its fall foliage is the paper birch (Betula papyrifera).

Its fall foliage color is yellow. The chalky bark, or “paper” is more striking than that of the river birch trees, sometimes attaining to almost a pure white (which is why it is also sometimes called "white birch").

The bark of this tree is, of course, famous for another reason, too: namely, as the material for birch-bark canoes.

 The fall foliage of paper birch trees is similar to that of gray birch trees (Betula populifolia). But gray birch trees grow in clumps, and their bark, which does not peel, is not especially attractive.

Grow these trees if you live in Canada or in the northern tier of U.S. states (planting zones 2-6). They are native to this region, and they prefer its cool temperatures. Their height and spread is similar to that of river birch trees. Plant them in full sun to partial shade.

Fall Foliage of Weeping Birch Trees

Another “white” birch is Young’s weeping birch (Betula pendula ‘Youngii’), a dwarf variety that reaches a height of 6-12 feet at maturity. It can be grown in planting zones 3-9. In addition to its white bark and yellow fall foliage, the form of this tree provides landscaping interest. As suggested by its name, the branches of this birch tree droop, or “weep” down towards the ground (you can read about other such weeping trees here). Plant it in full sun to partial shade. Its parent, Betula pendula, is the European white birch.

Fall Foliage of Yellow Birch Trees

Another of the attractive non-white birch trees is the yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). A tall tree (60-80 feet) with a spread of about 30 feet, it has yellow fall foliage.

But it derives its common name not from the color of its foliage, but rather from the color of its exfoliating bark. This bark sheds like that of the paper and river birch trees mentioned above. Speaking more accurately, one should describe the bark as golden in color. Yellow birches should be grown in full sun to partial shade, in planting zones 4-7.

What's Next?

Do not settle for trees, alone when it comes to growing plants for fall color. Read this article on shrubs and vines for fall color to learn of additional choices. In fact, as smaller plants, such shrubs and vines may be better suited to small yards. But if you are, in fact, seeking ideas specifically for trees with great leaf displays in autumn, please consult 10 Most Colorful Trees for Fall.