Silver birch is a striking, medium-sized deciduous tree native throughout the UK and Europe.
Common name: silver birch
Scientific name: Betula pendula
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: silver birch can be used to improve soil quality for other plants to grow. Its deep roots bring otherwise inaccessible nutrients into the tree, which are recycled on to the soil surface when the tree sheds its leaves.
What does birch look like?
Overview: mature trees can reach 30m in height, forming a light canopy with elegant, drooping branches. The white bark sheds layers like tissue paper and becomes black and rugged at the base. As the trees mature, the bark develops dark, diamond-shaped fissures. Twigs are smooth and have small dark warts
Leaves: light green, small and triangular-shaped with a toothed edge, which fade to yellow in autumn.
Flowers: silver birch is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers (catkins) are found on the same tree, from April to May. Male catkins are long and yellow-brown in colour, and hang in groups of two to four at the tips of shoots, like lambs’ tails. Female catkins are smaller, short, bright green and erect.
Fruits: after successful pollination (by wind), female catkins thicken and change colour to a dark crimson. Masses of tiny seeds are borne in autumn, which are dispersed by wind.
Look out for: bark is white and leaves triangular shaped.
Could be confused with: downy birch (Betula pubescens) and the two easily hybridise. New shoots on the silver birch are hairless and warty whereas those of downy are smooth and covered in soft hairs.
Identified in winter by: bark is white year round and twigs are rough to the touch.
Where to find silver birch
Silver birch is a popular garden tree and often hybridises with our other native birch, the downy birch, Betula pubescens which is more common in Scotland. Tolerant of a range of temperatures, it grows as far south as Spain and as far north as Lapland. It thrives in dry woodlands, downs and heaths.
Value to wildlife
Birch woods (which may include downy or silver birch, or both) have a light, open canopy, providing the perfect conditions for grasses, mosses, wood anemone, bluebells, wood sorrel and violets to grow.
Silver birch provides food and habitat for more than 300 insect species – the leaves attract aphids, providing food for ladybirds and other species further up the food chain, and are also a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the angle-shades, buff tip, pebble hook-tip, and Kentish glory. Birch trees are particularly associated with specific fungi including fly agaric, woolly milk cap, birch milk cap, birch brittlegill, birch knight, chanterelle and the birch polypore (razor strop).
Woodpeckers and other hole-nesting birds often nest in the trunk, while the seeds are eaten by siskins, greenfinches and redpolls.
Mythology and symbolism
In early Celtic mythology, the birch symbolised renewal and purification. Bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year, and gardeners still use the birch besom, or broom, to ‘purify’ their gardens. It is also used as a symbol of love and fertility. In Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, and a pregnant cow would bear a healthy calf.
How we use birch
Birch wood is tough and heavy, making it suitable for making furniture, handles and toys. It was used to make hardwearing bobbins, spools and reels for the Lancashire cotton industry. The bark is used for tanning leather.
Silver birch wood is of little commercial value in Britain because the trees do not grow as large as they do in other parts of Europe.
Planted birch appears to be susceptible to birch dieback, which is caused by two fungal pathogens, Marssonina betulae and Anisogramma virgultorum. Naturally regenerated birch (grown naturally from seed) appears to be less prone to this disease.