Dear Readers, this is a tree that can be found pretty much everywhere, and is often overlooked. How graceful it is, though, with its weeping twigs that, at this time of year, are a brownish-purple colour! And how ghostly that white bark can look, especially against a background of yews or other evergreens, though over time the bark develops deep, triangular black fissures. It was, in the 1920s and 1930s, a popular street tree, according to Paul Wood’s ‘Street Trees of London’ , but these days more exotic birch species such as the Chines red birch (Betula albosinensis) seem to be planted more frequently. As we shall see, silver birch supports a lot of biodiversity, so maybe it’s time for it to make a comeback, even though it’s a short-lived tree (it’s rare for a silver birch to live for more than 80 years.
The trees bear both male and female flowers in April and May. The male catkins are borne in groups of two or four, and look like dangling lambs’ tails. The female flowers are short, green and erect.
Although silver birch has a wide range, from Scandinavia through to Eastern Asia, I always associate it with the north. It seems to like heathland and moorland, and in the warmer parts of Europe it tends to grow at high altitudes. It is the national tree of Finland.
Birch forest is kind to other organisms – the canopy casts only light shade, and so an understorey can develop, as seen in the photo above. The ground beneath the trees can be full of primroses and wood sorrel, bluebells and wood anemone in spring, and in Scotland there may be blaeberry and cowberry growing underneath. The soft wood of the tree provides nest holes for woodpeckers, and the many insects that feed upon birch provide food for nightingales and warblers. This is a real contrast to the hardwood landscapes of hornbeam and oak woods, where the canopy is so shady that nothing apart from holly can survive outside of early spring, before the leaves form.
More than 300 insect species are associated with the silver birch in the UK, including the larvae of the Kentish Glory moth.
The tree is also associated with a whole raft of fungi, including fly agaric, birch knight and the birch polypore (or razor strop). The latter was actually used to sharpen razors, and is also used as a background for mounting dead insects in collections.
So, it’s clear that birch trees, in life and death, support a whole range of species. As you might expect from a native tree, there is also a lot of folklore connected to silver birch. Bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year, and a besom, or broom, made of birch was used by gardeners to purify their gardens. In Finland, birch twigs are used to beat the body when one comes out of a sauna. In the Scottish Highlands, a barren cow driven with a birch wand would become fertile, and a pregnant cow would have a fine and healthy calf.
Birch wood has been used for furniture, toys and for the bobbins used in Lancashire weaving factories, and birch bark is used for tanning leather. Traditionally, birch has been used as a treatment for rheumatism and arthritis, but recently there has been a resurgence in interest in birch syrup, which is made from the sweet and sticky sap of the tree in much the same way as maple syrup, although I note that this is usually made from the paperbark birches that are found in Alaska and Canada.
It comes as no surprise to me that these trees have been a subject for art – there is something about those shimmering white branches that begs to be painted. And artists as famous as Gustav Klimt couldn’t resist.
And finally, a poem. Seamus Heaney, no less. How I love the way he manages to sum the man up in just a few tiny details. I laughed out loud. See what you think.
At the back of a garden, in earshot of river water,
In a corner walled off like the baths or bake-house
Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa,
They have planted their birch grove. Planted it recently only,
But already each morning it puts forth in the sun
Like their own long grown-up selves, the white of the bark
As suffused and cool as the white of the satin nightdress
She bends and straightens up in, pouring tea,
Sitting across from where he dandles a sandal
On his big time-keeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s.
Red brick and slate, plum tree and apple retain
Their credibility, a CD of Bach is making the rounds
Of the common or garden air. Above them a jet trail
Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper.
“If art teaches us anything,” he says, trumping life
With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private.”
Photo One By Percita at Flickr – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5986991
Photo Two by By Tony Holkham – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33714192
Photo Three by Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Six by Ron Cogswell from https://www.flickr.com/photos/22711505@N05/26185760072