One Messy Son Of A Birch
Faithful reader Penny asks, "Is there anything more messy than a river birch? I'm constantly raking leaves and picking up branches. Any suggestions for this devil?"
That's one helluva good question, Penny. Yes, there are things messier than a river birch. Monkeys, for instance. Ever looked in the monkey cage at the zoo? Feeling queasy just thinking about it. I hate monkeys. But back to river birch.
River birch (Betula nigra) belongs in the category, "Beautiful Trees for Someone Else's Yard." They're popular here in the South because they're native, grow fast, develop handsome flaking bark, and don't fall victim to all the borers, bugs, and diseases other birches do. People plant them for quick shade and they get it -- along with problems they hadn't expected.
For one, think river birch gets BIG -- up to 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide. This is too big for the average yard, especially when you consider how close to the house lots of people mistakenly plant it. And in Grumpy's opinion, the bigger a river birch gets, the less attractive it looks. Kinda like most child movie stars.
And then there's the mess. River birch drops something almost every day, whether it's small twigs, pieces of bark, catkins, or yellowed leaves. The bigger it gets, the more junk it drops, and it never stops -- unless you finally get so teed off you cut the sucker down.
Other Trees To Avoid The following trees aren't bad choices everywhere, just bad choices for the average residential yard. (They may be fine for parks or the woods, though.) I've listed the reasons why for each.
Ash (Fraxinus sp.) -- The emerald ash borer has already killed gazillions of ashes in the Midwest and will probably wipe them out everywhere, for all intents and purposes. Not worth the risk of planting at this point.
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) -- Birds eat messy fruits and splatter everything beneath them with purple poop; seedlings come up all over; favorite food of Eastern tent caterpillar, which often defoliates it.
'Bradford' callery pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford') -- Most over-planted ornamental tree in the U.S.; gets too big (50 feet tall and wide); very weak-wooded and prone to storm damage; white spring flowers smell like fish; thorny seedlings come up everywhere.
Chinaberry (Melia azedarach) -- Drops messy fruits and seeds itself all over; invasive.
Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) -- Messy, cottony seeds; aggressive surface roots; suckers profusely; weak-wooded.
Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) -- Nice tree, but much too big (up to 90 feet tall); develops large surface roots with age.
Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) -- Messy fruits; drops twigs; insects feeding on leaves drip honeydew on everything below and then black, sooty mold grows on the honeydew.
Pecan (Carya illinoiensis) -- Grows way too big (70 feet tall and wide); drops nuts; prone to toppling in high winds; plagued by many insects and diseases.
Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) -- Covers the ground in fall and winter with spiny seed balls, the most hated seeds in creation.
Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) -- Grows too big (up to 80 feet tall and 60 feet wide); drops leaves 365 days a year (366 days in leap-years); develops surface roots; impossible to grow anything beneath it.
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) -- As the Donald would say, "It'll be YUGE!" Up to 100 feet tall and almost as wide; drops seed balls and flaking bark; prone to anthracnose fungus that causes leaves to drop.
Weeping willow (Salix babylonica) -- Quite possibly THE WORST TREE OF ALL to plant in a typical yard. Aggressive roots invade water lines and lift up pavement; grows 50-60 feet wide with branches hanging all the way to the ground; weak-wooded; host to just about every insect and disease there is; without constantly moist soil, it sulks, quickly declines, and croaks (the best of all possible outcomes).