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Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

A General Characteristics / ID Tips

Another common site in most parks, woodlands and countryside, Silver Birch is a visually striking medium-sized deciduous tree.  Capable of reaching 30m in height in maturity, with a light, drooping canopy and triangular leaves.  Perhaps most easily identified by the familiar white bark which sheds in layers like tissue paper and becomes increasingly black and rugged with age.

The species is also monoecious, meaning both male and female reproductive parts (i.e. catkins) occur on the same tree.  Male catkins are long, yellowy-brown in colour and hang down in pairs or groups of four.  Meanwhile the female counterparts are smaller, short, bright green and erect.

History and Culture

In early Celtic mythology, the Silver Birch was a symbol of renewal and purification.  At the start of the year, bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the year just gone.  Even today, gardeners will use the besom, or broom, of birch to ‘purify’ their gardens.

It is also believed to symbolise love and fertility.  Scottish Highland folklore holds that a barren cow herded with a birch stick will become fertile and pregnant cows will bear healthy calves under the influence of birch.

Uses

Silver birch is commonly planted in parks and gardens for its amenity value. It is also grown commercially for forest products such as lumber and pulp.

The wood of Silver Birch is pale in colour, with a light reddish-brown heartwood, and is used in making furniture, plywood, veneers, skis and kitchen utensils.  It also works well as firewood, albeit very quickly consumed.  Historically, the bark was also used for tanning and can be heated to extract the resin which makes an excellent waterproof glue.

Photo credit: Ben Jones, Arboricultural Consultant (Author)

In spring, large quantities of sap rise up the trunk and can be tapped.  It contains around 1% sugars and can be drunk fresh, concentrated via evaporation or even fermented into ‘wine’.

The light, open canopy of Silver Birch is also beneficial to grasses, mosses, wood anemones and other ground level floral species. It also provides food and habitat for over 300 insect species and provides nesting opportunities for woodpeckers and other hole-nesting birds.

Did You Know?

The Silver Birch is the national tree of Finland.  Indeed, for a truly relaxing experience, visit the Finnish saunas; where leafy, fragrant bunches of young Silver Birch boughs are used to gently beat oneself while bathing!

Photo credit: https://www.ornamental-trees.co.uk/betula-pendula-tree-p38

Care and Preservation

As a pioneer species, Silver Birch will typically colonise a wide range of habitats with little encouragement. They establish particularly well when planted in small groups or as a multi-stemmed specimen.  For best results, choose a moist but well-drained soil with full or partial sun.

Silver Birch can be propagated by seed, softwood, cuttings or grafting and are best managed with light pruning in late summer or early autumn.  Avoid pruning in late winter as this is known to cause ‘bleeding’.

Threats and Conservation

Silver Birch is currently listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.  However, the species does still suffer from threats both natural and man-made.

Planted birch trees are susceptible to birch dieback, believed to be caused by two fungal pathogens; Marssonina betulae and Anisogramma virgultorum.  However, naturally regenerated birch (i.e. those germinated from fallen tree seeds) appear less prone to the disease.

Pests of the Silver Birch include sawflies, aphids and leaf-mining sawflies.  Foliage ‘rust’ may also be a problem, however good horticultural practices are thought to be a key measure in preventing the spread of the fungal pathogens involved.

Final Thoughts

A pale and slender symbol of purity, the Silver Birch appears on land as a pioneer and is prized for its restorative and purifying abilities.

Often overlooked due to its ubiquitous distribution and pioneer tendencies, the species is a quiet and unassuming feature in a wide range of habitats with ties to our history, culture and environment.

Photo credit: Ben Jones, Arboricultural Consultant (Author)

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