Newest Review: ... can grow to over 20m. Too big for you? How about Betula nana? Known as the Arctic Birch, or Dwarf Birch, this one grows to a massi... more
Bring Back the Birch!
Member Name: Aspen
Date: 10/02/01, updated on 10/02/01 (564 review reads)
Advantages: Attractive tree suitable for most gardens.
Disadvantages: Your friends may worry about your activities with plastic tubing and rubber bungs.
No, this one hasn’t escaped from Speaker’s Corner. This is simply about trees. Birch trees. Graceful trees given less recognition than they deserve. Which is about to change, right?
Needless to say, like all our native trees, birch in the wild has declined markedly over the last two centuries. Considered a “weed” among trees by commercial foresters, birch woodland has been felled and cleared to make way for coniferous timber crops. Yet it is still one our most abundant trees, relatively speaking.
But even so, many remaining birch woods are dying through lack of regeneration. The birch is short-lived by tree standards, and the young seedlings in many areas are being annihilated by grazing sheep and browsing rabbits and deer.
There are in the main two types of native birch – the Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and the Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). It is from the Silver Birch that many of our garden varieties are bred.
A single birch can make a wonderful specimen tree in any garden. It is a small-leaved tree, so casts little shade, which is an important consideration if grown near a house. This lack of shade also means a wider range of plants will survive and thrive around it. It is not at all fussy as to soil requirements. Indeed, in the wild, birch can be found growing in such diverse conditions as sandy coastal areas, wet peaty moorland, and even lodged in rocky mountain crevices. So whatever the soil in your garden, it shouldn’t present a problem to a birch.
The small, light green leaves turn to rich gold in autumn, and make a colourful contribution to the late-season hues in your garden.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this tree is the bark. The silver birch itself, as it gets older, develops a flaky silvery-grey bark quite unlike any other tree. And other cultivated varieties have been carefully selected by nurserymen down the years for the qualities of the bark.
One of the most widely planted is Betula jacquemontii, which has brilliant white bark, and will ultimately reach about 15m. Of similar height is Betula utilis, the bark of which can be copper-brown, or pinkish-brown, and peels readily. Betula nigra has shaggy reddish bark, while Betula lutea has yellowish bark. The latter can grow to over 20m.
Too big for you?
How about Betula nana? Known as the Arctic Birch, or Dwarf Birch, this one grows to a massive two feet (60cm) tall! It is more a shrub than a tree in habit, spreading to about 1.2m across.
Betula pendula Purpurea grows to around 10m, and has purple-tinged bark and dark purple leaves.
Betula pendula Youngii grows to 8m, and is a beautiful weeping tree, ideal in the middle of a lawn.
Now, if you’ve read some of my other tree snippets, you may be wondering by now if I’m going to manage to slip anything alcoholic into this opinion. Need you ask?
A rather palatable white wine can be made, not from flowers or leaves, but from the sap of the birch. Only a mature tree can be used – draining too much of the “life-blood” of a younger tree may kill it. The trunk needs to be drilled, and a bung fitted, with a piece of tubing inserted. As the sap rises in spring, it may be drained via the tubing into a suitable container. Be kind to the tree. Don’t take too much. Enough for a gallon, say, then replace the tubing with a solid bung, so the sap doesn’t escape. Then start again the following spring. The sap is fermented in the usual way.
Birch sap wine is now sold by many of the “Country Wine” producers.
A cautionary note: Although I make reference to winemaking in many of these plant reviews, don’t just run out and do it. Get a good home winemaking book, and follow the recipes. Better still, get at least two, so you can double check. I once found a reci
pe for clover flower wine. Made it, drank it, enjoyed it, and suffered no ill effects. But then in another book, read that clover contained traces of arsenic, and should be avoided. Didn’t try it again! (And I don’t want to be held responsible for the malfunctioning of your innards as a result of these opinions!)
And finally, an interesting musical footnote – the old Norse word for birch is Bjork. Hmm.