Silver Birch, European White Birch - Betula pendula

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Betula pathway. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens Visit his flickr photostreamBetula pathway. Picture courtesy Karl Gercens Visit his flickr photostreamCondensed Version:

Best known for its characteristic silvery-white bark which does not peel like the paper birch; this beautiful medium-sized deciduous tree looks good all year round. Under optimal conditions it can reach a height of +-20m with a 12m spread, but can take 50 to 60 years to reach its ultimate height. In the garden it generally grows fairly quickly to +-5 to 10m tall with a 3 to 5m spread in the first 10 years. The silver birch produces a crown of arched branches with pendulous twigs. It has a slender trunk which seldom exceeds 40cm in diameter. The bark is green when young, maturing to its characteristic white and often marked with black diamond-shaped marks or larger patches, particularly at the base. The long, triangular bright green leaves have coarsely serrated margins and in cold regions will turn a wonderful gold colour in autumn. Yellow flowers, born in cylindrical catkins, appear before the fresh green leaves in early spring. They are wind-pollinated and followed in late summer by small winged seeds. Cultivars include 'Purpurea' with its lovely dark purple leaves and 'Youngii', a small weeping form of the silver birch.

The silver birch is a well-shaped tree that is ideal for small gardens; letting the sunshine through in winter and providing light shade in summer. It is a popular specimen tree for the lawn which allows the grass to grow well underneath. It is perfect for romantic and white gardens, pairing beautifully with the hardy Oak-leaved hydrangea and other shade loving plants. Planted alongside long driveways it will provide a stately entrance; and planted in groups of 3 to 5 a lovely forest effect can be created.

In South Africa birches thrive in moist cool regions like the KwaZulu-Natal mist belt, but are fully hardy to frost and snow. They are not suited to very hot dry regions but can be grown in the winter rainfall regions if they are protected from strong winds and are watered thoroughly in summer. Birch trees are shallow rooted and do not tolerate drought well, so always water regularly during dry spells. In cool regions they love to grow in full sun but in hotter gardens they will take some light shade.  The silver birch will adapt to most well-drained garden soils and grows well in neutral to extremely acidic soils.  It prefers medium fertility and is adapted to clay, silt, sand and loam soils.

Betula Autumn Leaves. Picture courtesy Lotus Johnston Visit her flickr photostreamBetula Autumn Leaves. Picture courtesy Lotus Johnston Visit her flickr photostreamFull Version:

Description, History & Interesting Facts:

Birches are broadleaved deciduous trees of the genus Betula, which also includes alders, hazels and hornbeams; and is closely related to the beech/oak family, Fagaceae. There are about 60 species common throughout the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and particularly in boreal climates where they form stands on light, well-drained, particularly acidic soils.  A boreal forest climate is a continental climate with long, very cold winters, and short, cool summers. Very cold air masses from the arctic often move in and the temperature range is larger than any other climate. In these regions birches are regarded as short-lived pioneer species, rapidly colonising disturbed or open ground; and quickly regenerating after fires.

Birch species are generally small to medium-sized trees and the bark of all birches is characteristically marked with long, horizontal lenticels, and often separates into thin, papery plates, especially upon the paper birch. The wood is resistant to decay, due to the resinous oil it contains, and the colour of the bark gives rise to the common names of the different species:  grey, white, black, silver or yellow birches. Birch trees live to a maximum age of 60 to 80 years and their foliage is used as a food plant by the larvae of a large number of butterflies and moths species. Birch trees have a symbiotic relationship with a well-known British fungus, the fly agaric or fly amanita (Amanita muscaria), easily identified by its distinctive red cap and white spots, and renowned for its hallucinogenic properties.

Betula pendula Young TreeBetula pendula Young TreeThe silver birch (Betula pendula) is native to Europe where it is widespread, although in southern Europe it is only found at higher altitudes. It occurs mainly on dry, sandy soils, and its range extends into southwest Asia in the mountains of northern Turkey and the Caucasus. In Scandinavia and other regions of northern Europe, it is grown for forestry.  In parts of Canada it is naturalised and locally invasive. Best known for its characteristic silvery-white bark which does not peel like the paper birch; this beautiful medium-sized deciduous tree looks good all year round. Under optimal conditions it can reach a height of +-20m with a 12m spread, but it can take 50 to 60 years to reach its ultimate height. In the garden it generally grows fairly quickly to +-5 to 10m tall with a 3 to 5m spread in the first 10 years. Cultivars include 'Purpurea' with its lovely dark purple leaves and 'Youngii', a small weeping form of the silver birch.

The silver birch produces a crown of arched branches with pendulous twigs and has a slender trunk which seldom exceeds 40cm in diameter. The bark is green when young, maturing to its characteristic white, and often marked with black diamond-shaped marks or larger patches, particularly at the base. The long, triangular bright green leaves have coarsely serrated margins and in cold regions will turn a wonderful gold colour in autumn. Yellow flowers, born in cylindrical catkins, appear before the fresh green leaves in early spring. They are wind-pollinated and followed in late summer by small winged seeds.

betulapendulabarkbetulapendulabarkUses:

In Britain, wine made from the sap was once taken as a medicine; and in Ireland the bark was used to treat skin complaints. In Sweden, the bark of birch trees was ground up and used to make a form of bread, and the removal of bark was at one time so widespread that Carl Linnaeus expressed his concern for the survival of the woodlands. Today, the leaves and bark are mostly used for their diuretic properties; and birch tar oil prepared from the bark of Betula pendula is used to treat skin conditions. One of the major constituents of the bark, betulinic acid, has shown activity against cancerous cells and HIV. The silver birch is Finland's national tree and interestingly the fragrant little branches, called vihta or vasta, are used to gently beat oneself in a sauna, having a relaxing effect on the muscles. The wood of all the species is close-grained with a satiny texture and capable of taking a fine polish. Historically, the bark was used for tanning and the brushwood is still used for racecourse jumps.

In the Garden:

The silver birch is a well-shaped tree that is ideal for small gardens; letting the sunshine through in winter and providing light shade in summer. It remains a popular specimen tree for the lawn, allowing the lawn to grow well underneath. It is perfect for romantic and white gardens, pairing beautifully with the hardy Oak-leaved hydrangea and other shade loving plants. Planted alongside long driveways it will provide a stately entrance; and planted in groups of 3 to 5 a lovely forest effect can be created.

Picture courtesy Leonora Enking, visit her flickr photostreamPicture courtesy Leonora Enking, visit her flickr photostreamCultivation:

In South Africa birches thrive in moist cool regions like the KwaZulu-Natal mist belt, but are fully hardy to frost and snow. They are not suited to very hot or dry regions, but can be grown in the cooler parts of the winter rainfall regions if they are protected from strong winds and are watered thoroughly in summer. These trees are totally not suited to subtropical regions. Birch trees are shallow rooted and do not tolerate drought well, so always water regularly during dry spells. In cool regions they love to grow in full sun but in hotter gardens they will take some light shade. The silver birch will adapt to most well-drained garden soils and grows well in neutral to extremely acidic soils.  It prefers medium fertility and is adapted to clay, silt, sand and loam soils. They don’t grow well in shallow alkaline soil.

Propagation:

The primary method of propagation is from seed sown in summer, with germination taking place within 4 to 6 weeks.  Collect seeds in late summer and keep at about 4°C for 2 months before sowing. Germination is best in soil temperatures between 20 and 26°C. Softwood stem tip cuttings can also be taken in early summer and treated with hormone powder and intermittent mist; grafting/ budding are also successful.

Pests & Diseases:

Birches are susceptible to birch borers, birch rust, aphids, honey fungus and mildew. Leaves may become yellow on poor, shallow, chalky soil.

Warning:

Birch pollen is well known to be a significant aeroallergen (an allergen dispersed bywind). This pollen is known to be a notable cause of hay-fever and pollen-related asthma.

Additional Info

  • Common Name: Silver Birch, European White Birch
  • Latin Name: Betula pendula