Planting trees along a river bank can provide environmental benefits such as preventing soil erosion, providing shelter for wildlife and decreasing runoff of pollutants into the water. When selecting trees that grow near rivers, it is important to choose the right species and cultivars to ensure their survival and success. Choose trees that are tolerant of wet soils, are native to the area and will look nice growing along the banks. Once the trees become established, leave them undisturbed to grow and develop into a natural planting.
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Red Maple Trees
For fall color, the red maple (Acer rubrum), also known as swamp maple, is a standout choice for wet soils along riverbanks. Its natural habitat features slightly acidic soils in low, wet areas and wetlands. While not as tolerant of urban pollution as some other trees, the range of color, from the red flowers that appear in spring to the yellow to red leaves in autumn make it an attractive choice among the trees that grow near rivers. Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9, red maple grows up to 45 feet tall and 35 feet wide, depending on the cultivar.
Paw Paw Trees
The paw paw (Asimina triloba) is a native of the Southeast, hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9. Paw paw thrives in full sun to part shade in moist conditions along rivers and low, wet spots in the landscape. Because it spreads by root suckers into thickets, it could be among the best plants for stream bank stabilization. On the other hand, it may become invasive and requires frequent pruning to maintain a tree form in the garden.
A relatively small tree, the paw paw grows 15 to 30 feet tall and equally wide. The cup-shaped purple flowers that appear in spring produce edible fruits that resemble bananas in taste and texture. The fruits are eaten fresh or used in ice cream and pies.
River Birch Trees
The river birch (Betula nigra) grows best near water. It is a fast-growing tree that can reach heights of 50 feet and widths of 40 feet in optimal growing conditions. It produces triangular serrated leaves that are supported by a multitrunk base. Each trunk is covered with dark gray to black flaky, peeling bark. River birches are hardy in USDA planting zones 3 to 9, prefer acidic soils and can grow in areas that receive full sun to partial shade.
Quaking Aspen Trees
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) grow all over North America. These trees have chalky white bark and dark green leaves that tremble in the breeze. They require moist to wet soils and full sun conditions to thrive. They are most hardy in USDA zones 3 to 6. Quaking aspen trees can reach heights of 50 feet with a width of 20 feet. These trees grow in clumps and make excellent windbreaks and natural plantings.
Nuttall or Red River Oaks
The nuttall oak (Quercus nuttallii), also known as red river oak, is found in the southeastern United States. This tree grows well in heavy, clay soils that remain wet. It will only grow in areas that receive full sunlight and is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9. It is a large tree that can grow 40 to 60 feet tall with a spread of 25 to 30 feet. Wildlife such as squirrels, deer, ducks and wild turkeys eat the nuttall oak's acorns during the winter.
Willows: Best Trees for Wet Soil
The classic weeping willow (Salix babylonica) is best known for its weeping habit. The branches seem to cascade down the tree with a waterfall-like appearance. One of the best trees for wet soil, the weeping willow require a moist growing environment with heavy soils and can survive in areas with standing water.
These water-loving trees prefer full sun areas and often can be found growing along streams and rivers in the wild. They can reach heights of 50 feet tall and spread to widths of 35 feet. Weeping willows are hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9.