Trees: Birch

Silver birch:  Betula pendula

One of the few trees native to the UK, the silver birch or Betula pendula is the darling of contemporary landscape designers.  Its light airy broadleaf foliage, elegant pendulous habit, distinctive white peeling bark on thin straight boles, delicate yellow catkins in spring and good autumn colour makes it a versatile tree in both public and private settings and for contemporary or traditional planting. It tolerates polluted cities, prefers an acid soil but will make do with a variety of different soil conditions, and will grow as gracefully in multi-stem coppices as a single bole. Furthermore, its shallow roots mean it can be planted around structures without fear of the roots damaging drains or foundations. It can grow to a majestic 25m, a height easily reduced by confining roots without compromising the tree.

You’ll see a lot of them dotted around in Waterlow Park and for a superb example of them as part of a designed garden, check out the coppice of Betula in the front garden of the glasshouse in South Grove.

The origin of the word “birch” is obscure yet it is universal to the western world.  Versions of the word can be found in Old English (birch, birke), Anglo Saxon (birce), Old German (bircha), Middle Dutch (berk), Icelandic and Swedish (bjork) and even Sanskrit (bhurja), because birch bark was used for paper for Sanskrit documents 3,500 years ago.  Although only a few manuscripts have survived, the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism, would have been recorded on the humble birch bark.

There are more prosaic uses for birch bark:  as an early form of snow goggle in the Alps or as oil for tanning leather in Russia. (The oil is a fungicide and is still used in bookbinding.)  Native Americans’ canoes were made of birch bark (though not the silver birch) and it was used for roofing in Kashmir and for wrapping paper as well as umbrellas in the Himalayas.

The birch is nothing if not versatile, with every part of the tree from tip to root having a practical use. Its pliable twigs are good for brooms, or as vihtas in the Finnish sauna (the birch is the national tree of Finland), and as hurdles in jump races (except at Aintree, where they stick doggedly to the more rigid hazel thought by some to be the cause of those many falls in the Grand National). The wood is commonly in contemporary furniture, as any browser at IKEA will testify, while in more northerly climes it is shaped into sleds as it’s ability to absorb oil and polish helps it glide comfortably over ice.

The birch also enjoys a spiritual place in the human psyche. Symbolising good and evil, purity and birth, love and punishment, it is a tree of contradictions. The birch broom was the transport of choice for witches while mediaeval judges and magistrates carried birch twigs around with them as protection against villains.  The spiritual links of birch however go back deep into European mythology, where it was a symbol of birth and rebirth. In Anglo-Saxon legend, the birch goddess is related to the Great Mother or Earth Goddess symbolising femininity. There is a tradition in Scandinavia (and a custom among settlers in the US) to plant a birch tree outside a new home for protection and to mark a new beginning. In Roman mythology it is the tree of Venus, a symbol of love and fertility. Not surprisingly, maypoles are made of birch (as, traditionally, are magic wands). Extraordinarily, it was also a symbol on the US dime until 1945.

But there’s a dark side to the birch. A bundle of twigs tied together is an instrument of corporal punishment to beat out the evil spirits of miscreants. Painfully, it was employed extensively in British schools until outlawed in 1948. The punitive use of the birch has more sinister connotations. Fasces, Latin for ‘fastened bundles of stout sticks’ made of birch, tied with red leather thongs with an axe in the centre, were carried before magistrates in ancient Rome as a symbol of their power over the citizens:  the birch bundle lacerated the wrongdoer and the axe that beheaded him was of birch.  This ugly symbol - and the word - would be adopted two millennia later by Mussolini’s fascists, to chilling effect. Extraordinarily, the fasces was also a symbol on the US dime until 1945.

Darker still is the infamous concentration camp of Birkenau (birk being a corruption of the Old German word for birch).  At the far end of the camp a peaceful birch copse gives way to a dark pond.  It was here that mothers and children oblivious to their fate waited in the shade of these idyllic trees for their turn to enter the gas chambers.  That still dark pond they gazed into held a terrible secret – therein lay the ashes of tens of thousands of cremated bodies to which there own would soon be tossed.

On a more positive note, the birch has its medicinal uses, real and imagined.  The sap was thought to help with kidney ailments while betulin in the bark, when processed, is believed to have anti-cancer, anti-malarial and anti-HIV properties. The sap incidentally was once used as a source of sugar. Drawn from the trunk in spring before the leaf buds opened it would be fermented and turned into wine or beer – an industry still evident in Scotland and by the Dutch in Pennsylvania.

As if all the above is not enough, to add icing to the Betula cake, it is home to some 230 species of insects. 

See how one of the silver birch trees in the park changes through the year.