Silver birch (Betula pendula)

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Silver birch in autumn colouration
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Silver birch fact file

Silver birch description

KingdomPlantae
PhylumAnthophyta
ClassMagnoliopsida
OrderFagales
FamilyBetulaceae
GenusBetula

One of the most familiar trees in the British countryside, the graceful silver birch is a genuine native, having been an early coloniser at the end of the Ice Age. Its papery-white bark – almost pink in young trees – distinguishes it from the downy birch Betula pubescens which has reddish bark that turns grey with age and is usually found in wetter habitats in the uplands. The leaves of silver birch are small and roughly diamond in shape. They are toothed on both sides and borne on slender warty twigs that shiver in the slightest breeze. Saplings also share this tendency to sway in the wind and, traditionally, foresters would remove young birches from plantations to avoid them flaying more valuable trees. As silver birch ages, its bark darkens and becomes rougher and more fissured and prone to attack by the birch polypore fungus Piptoporus betulinus.

Birch wood has little strength as a timber although in the past it was used extensively in the Highlands of Scotland. The Highlanders made almost anything from it, including their furniture and houses. Traditionally, the suppleness of the branches and twigs was exploited for making besoms or ‘witches’ brooms. Smaller versions of this implement, stripped of bark, are still popular as kitchen whisks. Besoms were also used as fire beaters but, today, the Forestry Commission uses a less flammable material. Hardly surprising when you consider that birch bark and twigs are one of the best materials for starting a fire!

Size
Height: up to 25 m
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Silver birch biology

One of the reasons why birch managed to colonise the newly emerging lands following the retreat of the glaciers lies in its abundantly-produced seed, as fine as powder. Even today, it remains what botanists call a ‘pioneer’ species, one of the first trees to occupy suitable ground. That said, it is not a long-lived tree; most specimens die or succumb to fungal attack by the age of 70. However, they do offer protection to slower-growing, longer-lived tree species such as oaks, and where left to regenerate birches can play an important role in helping to nurture a wood.

The catkins appear early in spring and release their pollen in clouds during April. The leaves emerge shortly after, a bright emerald green at first and finally turning golden in autumn.

Birches produce an abundance of sap in spring and a cut stump will continue to ‘bleed’ for weeks. In North America, a species of woodpecker called the sapsucker taps birch trees in spring by cutting small wells in the bark and drinking the sap which oozes out. In the UK, a similar technique is employed by makers of birch tree wine, a drink once believed to have medicinal properties, including those of curing kidney stones and skin complaints.

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Silver birch range

Birch is found throughout most of the UK and Europe and across Asia.

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Gateway.
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Silver birch habitat

This species favours dry heaths, downs and woods, but it will also grow in fens and marshes. It has been planted extensively as a show tree in parks and gardens.

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Silver birch status

Common in the UK.

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Silver birch threats

There are currently no threats to silver birch in the UK.

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Silver birch conservation

Due to its invasive nature, silver birch scrub is often the reason why conservation work is carried out on some nature reserve sites. Birch colonises open areas quickly and, when left unchecked, can reduce the conservation value of habitats such as heathland. In consequence, there are no specific projects for conserving the species.

There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Gateway.
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Authentication

Information supplied by English Nature:
http://www.englishnature.org.uk/

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References

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Image credit

Silver birch in autumn colouration  
Silver birch in autumn colouration

© Michael Callan / www.flpa-images.co.uk

FLPA - images of nature
Pages Green House
Wetheringsett
Stowmarket
Suffolk IP14 5QA
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 1728 861 113
Fax: +44 (0) 1728 860 222
pictures@flpa-images.co.uk
http://www.flpa-images.co.uk

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