River birch

Betulaceae (Birch family)

Description: Small to medium-sized deciduous tree with reddish brown or pinkish bark peeling into thin shaggy sheets. Leaves alternate with a wedge-shaped base and double-toothed margins. Tiny unisexual flowers in catkins; male catkins elongate and drooping, female catkins upright. Small nutlets in narrow cone-like clusters near branch tips. Flowers Mar.-Apr.; fruits May-June.

Habitat/range: Periodically wet areas such as riverbanks, streambanks, sandbars, and alluvial forests. Common in piedmont, uncommon in mountains. Throughout eastern United States.

Taxonomy: River birch can be distinguished from yellow birch (Betula alleg-haniensis) and sweet birch (B. lenta) by reddish brown or pink bark peeling into thin, paper-like layers, wedge-shaped leaf bases, and a lack of a wintergreen odor in crushed leaves and cut twigs.

Ecology: A characteristic floodplain species, river birch can tolerate frequently waterlogged soils. The conspicuously peeling bark benefits the plant as it provides a mechanism to "shed" vines that might otherwise grow up into the canopy and shade out its leaves. Large seed crops are produced almost every year. The winged seeds are dispersed by wind and by water; water is probably the more important dispersant, as it is more likely to deposit seeds in a favorable site for germination and seedling establishment, which for river birch is a site with soil high in moisture and sunlight (as is found along river margins). Unlike the seeds of our other birches, its seeds are dispersed in early summer (rather than in fall), a time when the surrounding landscape is less likely to be flooded. The seeds germinate almost immediately after dispersal, as they lose viability within 3 days. On moist, open alluvial soils such as river sandbars, large numbers of seedlings can establish, forming dense thickets of river birch.

Wildlife: White-tailed deer browse the foliage and various birds consume the seeds.

Uses: River birch is a widely planted landscape tree because of its attractive peeling bark, adaptability, and drought tolerance. River birch helps reduce erosion and siltation along waterways, but produces abundant wind-dispersed pollen in early spring, which can be allergenic.

Carpinus caroliniana Walter

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