Latin name: Betula pendula
Native words: Old Irish () Scots Gaelic (beithe) Old English (birce) Welsh (bedwen) eastern Celtic ()
Ogham sign: B
Height when mature: 33m 105 ft
Height after 10 years: 5-6m 16-20ft
Silver Birch botanical description:
Fast growing, attractive tree with narrow trunk white with black notches and diamonds making deep fissures on the bark. Birch is a pioneer species, which is one of the first to colonise a site. It is especially good at taking over old industrial locations. It is primarily associated, however, with wet, boggy ground. Birch trees are one of the shortest lived British native trees only living between 40-60 years. When young, Birch trees usually have reddish bark, which changes to white as they mature. Bright green leaves emerge in April from red-purple buds, and are pointed in an ‘arrow head’ style and noticeably toothed. In the autumn the leaves often give a spectacular display of orange and yellow leaves which stand out in a wood like a tree on fire! Birches have a symbiotic relationship with fungi and often develop large bracket fungi on their trunk, called Polypores. Birch also has a close relationship with Scots Pine, growing along side them in Caledonian forests. With Scots Pine, Birch is our oldest British native tree; after the Ice Age they were the first to spread over the countryside. Silver Birch is one of two native birches, the other being Downy Birch, Betula pubescens. Many exotic birches are planted in urban settings, including the paper birch, the bark of which peels away in large strips.
Silver Birch natural history and ancient wisdom:
On the Isle of Colonsay in the Western Isles of Scotland, Birch boughs were hung over cradles to protect them from fairies. In Welsh lore, birches were associated with love. In Siberia, tribal peoples, such as the Khanty still use birch bark to make containers for food, and peel off strips of the under bark to use as tinder for fires; the tree is not harmed. They also communicate through runic like symbols cut into birch trunks as messages for other passing that way; a living signpost! Interestingly, the word birch is thought to have derived from the Sanskrit word bhurga meaning a 'tree whose bark is used to write upon'.
Silver Birch place names in the UK:
Birkenhead (Wirral) ‘ headland where birch grows’, Birchwood (Cheshire) Berkesdon (Hertfordshire) ‘birch valley’ Birkdale (Lancashire) ‘birch valley’, Birchington (Kent) Much & Little Birch (Herefordshire), Birchanger (Essex) ‘birch wood on a slope’
Silver Birch wildlife rating:
Excellent. Food plant of the rare Camberwell Beauty butterfly and the Kentish Glory and Lobster Moths. A favourite nesting tree for the uncommon Lesser Spotted woodpecker, Silver Birch is used by hundreds of species insects, especially when the tree is dead but remains standing, which often occurs with Birch. In spring, many woodland birds flit from birch to birch finding caterpillars for their young. Siskins feed on the seeds in winter. Fly Agaric, the famous (and very poisonous!) toadstool with its red cap and white spots, develop under birch even in gardens.
Silver Birch good points/ bad points:
Grows very quickly and easily. It does not have a dense crown and allows light through. Its bark and golden autumn leaves is very attractive. It is also tolerant of heavy and damp soil, (but prefers well drained) and is very hardy. Suitable for all sizes of gardens and for sites where mature woodland is required quickly. The seed is very fertile and a mature Birch can produce hundreds of viable tiny seeds which germinate across the garden.