SILVER BIRCH TREE

It’s All in the Details

Silver Birch Tree

 

Everything you need to know about the silver birch tree, from identification tips to typical characteristics; how to spot disease and the best way to maintain a silver birch tree.

The silver birch tree is native to the UK. It can reach 30 meters in height in maturity and has a light canopy with characteristic cascading branches. This tree is widely used to boost soil quality so that other plants can grow healthily and it does this courtesy of its deep roots that draw in otherwise inaccessible nutrients, recycling them into the soil as the leaves are shed.

 

SILVER BIRCH TREE

General Facts

Birch, silver

 

(Betula pendula)

Silver birch is a striking, medium-sized deciduous tree native throughout the UK and Europe.

Mature trees can reach 30m in height, forming a light canopy 

Leaves and catkins on the silver birch 

Leaves are light green, small and ovate with a toothed edge

Both male and female flowers (catkins) are found on the same tree

Silver birch seed 

Twigs are smooth and have small dark warts

As the trees mature, the bark develops dark, diamond-shaped fissures

The whitebark sheds layers like tissue paper

Silver birch in winter (

Silver birch in summer 

Silver birch in spring 

Silver birch in autumn

Common name: silver birch

Scientific name: Betula pendula

Family: Betulaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: silver birch can be used to improve soil quality for other plants to grow. It's widely spread roots bring otherwise inaccessible nutrients into the tree, which are recycled on to the soil surface when the tree sheds its leaves.

A year in the life of a silver birch tree

 

What does birch look like?

Overview: mature trees can reach 30m in height, forming a light canopy with elegant, drooping branches. The whitebark 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 fades 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 color, 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 color to a dark crimson. Masses of tiny seeds are borne in autumn, which is 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 hybridize. New shoots on the silver birch are hairless and warty whereas those of downy is 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 hybridizes 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

Birchwoods (which may include downy or silver birch or both) has 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.

Threats

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.

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