The second in my new series on woodland trees: the graceful birch is associated with love, fertility, new beginnings… and broomsticks
There are three species of birch present in Britain. Two of them, the silver birch (Betula pendula) and the downy birch (Betula pubescens), are pretty much widespread, while the third, the dwarf birch (Betula nana), is confined largely to the highlands of Scotland.
All these species are deciduous; the silver birch may grow up to about 100 feet, while the downy birch may reach 70 feet. The dwarf birch, as its name suggests, hugs the ground at a height of no more than two or three feet, and is often stunted even more by the grazing of hungry deer or sheep.
Both male and female catkins form on the same tree, and they appear during April and May. Male catkins are long and yellowish-brown, and hang downwards, often in groups of two or four, while their shorter female counterparts are bright green and grow upright.
Birch flowers are pollinated by the wind, and hundreds of seeds are produced by each catkin. These rely on the wind once more for their dispersal. A large birch tree may produce up to a million seeds each year, though only a small fraction of these will germinate.
Both silver and downy birch thrive in a wide range of soils, but the downy birch is more tolerant of waterlogged conditions. In Scotland, silver birches are abundant in the eastern and central highlands, where the climate is generally dry but cold; downy birches are more prevalent in the western uplands and coastal fringes, where the land tends to get more of a soaking.
The bark of a mature silver birch is a beautiful milky white with a texture like paper, and it will peel to reveal dark fissures as the tree ages. Younger twigs may be reddish in colour, becoming paler as they develop. The bark of downy birch is greyish brown, and patterned with darker horizontal grooves. Both species have long and slender branches, those of the silver birch tending to droop gracefully while those of the downy birch are carried more upright.
Because they rarely live beyond 100 years of age, birch trees rarely achieve a great size, and consequently their use in furniture making is limited. When it is available, birchwood reveals a tight grain that may range in colour from red to white.
Birch leaves are bright green, and in spring the trees make wonderful splashes of colour against the darker shades of a pine forest; they will turn a vibrant golden yellow in autumn. The leaves of a silver birch are triangular and finely serrated, while downy birch leaves are more rounded at the base with fine hairs on the underside. Because the two species sometimes hybridise, it can be difficult to tell them apart.
Through its wind-borne seeds the birch is a ‘pioneer’ tree, quickly establishing itself on land that may have been damaged by fire or over-grazing. It was one of the first species to colonise Britain after the last Ice Age, and because it draws a wide variety of nutrients from the soil it creates a rich leaf litter in which other plants can flourish.
A huge variety of mosses and grasses thrive in birch woodland, alongside primroses, wood anemones, bluebells, wood sorrel and violets. In the higher regions of the Caledonian Forest the undergrowth may consist of blaeberry and cowberry.
Pied flycatcher, wood warbler, nightingale, woodcock, redstart and redwing are all birds that frequent birch woodlands. The habitat supports many thousands of insects, which, in turn, provide food for birds such as long-tailed tits, treecreepers, robins and woodpeckers, and the seeds are eaten by siskins, greenfinches and redpolls. Birch woods are often rich in fungi, including fly agaric, woolly milk cap, birch milk cap and chanterelle.
In folklore, the birch has deep connections with love and fertility, and is personified as Queen of the Woods, a very feminine presence. Wreaths of birch were once woven as love tokens. A birch ‘switch’, when used to herd a barren cow, was thought to promote pregnancy; if it was a fertile cow, she would bear a healthy calf.
The belief that birch switches would drive out evil spirits probably explains their use in the corporal punishment dealt out to naughty schoolchildren – and more serious offenders – for many centuries. Witches’ brooms or besoms are usually constructed of birch twigs lashed to a handle of hazel. (Not that I have one myself!)
Always one of the earliest trees to burst into leaf, the birch was considered to be the tree of youth and new beginnings. It was felt that birch rods would drive out the spirit of the old year. In early summer, Beltane fires were kindled from birch and oak, and a birch tree – often living and still rooted in the ground – was sometimes chosen as a maypole.
You won’t find any kings concealed in the all-too-slender branches of a birch tree; Charles II chose wisely when he opted to hide in an oak. You should, however, look twice if you catch sight of some large grey-brown birds swaying perilously in the topmost twigs. These will be blackcock (or greyhens) in search of breakfast.
Birch twigs inscribed with Ogham symbols were carried on a journey as a form of protection: in fact, the Ogham letter ‘B’ derives from the Irish ‘beth’ or ‘beith’, meaning ‘birch’. I’m quite glad I didn’t live in the Dark Ages, with any need to travel: the weight of accumulated talismans (plus assorted essential crystals) would surely have sealed my doom.
The name ‘beith’ survives in an Ayrshire town which bears the name; in fact, it used to be called ‘Hill of Beith’. ‘Beith’ also crops up throughout the highlands – examples are Alltbeithe, Tigh na Beithe and Coire Beithe. In England, Birkenhead and Berkhamstead share the same roots.
As a natural medicine, birch sap was considered to have diuretic and antiseptic properties. It was used to treat cystitis and other urinary tract infections, as well as for relieving rheumatism and gout. The bark was thought to alleviate muscle pain, while the sap was used to treat skin disorders, and brewed into ale or wine. In fact, silver birch wine is still offered by some specialist producers.
Birch trees are susceptible to the parasitic Witches’ Broom Fungus (Taphrina betulina) which causes the branches to form abnormally dense growths of small twigs. These are easy to see in winter – they resemble very haphazard birds’ nests.
For centuries, poets and artists have been inspired by the beauty and elegance of the birch. I can vouch for this, because birch trees crop up very frequently in Colin’s paintings. He loves the shape of them in winter, the subtle purplish hue of the bare branches, and the wonderful colour of the leaves in autumn.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos copyright © Colin Woolf