Birches are among the most widely grown trees in Britain today. Not fussy about soil type, they are great pioneers, and seedling trees can often be seen up on precarious cliffs or anywhere they can get a foothold (or should it be roothold?). I can think of a wide stretch of common land that used to be grazed by sheep, and to the eye was mainly heather. Since the sheep have gone the whole area is now wooded with birch, many five meters or more high. Even on some of the least hospitable sites, birch will gamely have a go, kept down by browsing sheep or tempest, rather than by want of spirit. They are not at their best on shallow chalky soils, and will not stand water logged sites. These limitations apart, they are a remarkably familiar sight around all parts of Britain.
And what a sight they are, with their bright sprays of fresh green foliage in the spring and summer, buttery tinted leaves in the autumn, striking creamy white stems in younger trees, and fissured gnarled trunks on older specimens. Many birches have long weeping shoots at the ends of their branches, which move gently in a breeze, giving them a calm and tranquil air, which is greatly enhanced by the soft rustle of the leafy twigs. In livelier weather the branches and leaves are tossed listlessly about, like fronds of seaweed in a tidal pool, giving a sense of drama to the scene.
The timber of birch is quite pale and often has an attractive rippled effect. Latterly it has been used extensively to make furniture and flooring, and formerly was included in veneers and marquetry. Many skateboards are made from birch wood, as are the drums underpinning many of popular music’s greatest names. The twigs are plentiful and thin and, yes, twiggy; they have long been used in besom brooms, and also for the infamous corporal punishment ‘birching’. The enjoyment of a traditional sauna is helped along with birch beatings. Reputedly.
Silver birches support a great deal of wildlife. Their pioneering colonisation makes nutrients available for other plants: their deep roots seek out minerals, which are then shed with the leaves into the upper layers of soil. Several fungi are closely associated with birch, such as the Fly Agaric and the tinder fungus. Hundreds of species of insect depend on birch for their lifecycle, and in turn these support a host of birds. Their seeds also help many birds to get through the harsh winters of northern Europe.
Being a common native tree it is not surprising that birch appears widely in folklore. Many place names in England and Scotland refer to birches (Birkhamstead, Birkenhead, Beith). The trees leaf up early in spring, and are associated with many mythical figures such as Eostre, the goddess of spring. Maypoles were often birches, and birch frequently featured in rites of love and fertility. They also have a connection with purification and renewal, being so closely linked with spring and spring cleaning.
Also, our familiar and well-loved native silver birch has a number of fine and attractive relatives. Many of these are worthy of wider planting in British gardens. For more details of these, and lots of others, see the listing under Betula, the botanical name for birch.