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Tree 32: Silver Birch

Latin name: Betula pendula
Family: Betulaceae
Origin: Europe and northern Asia, Morocco
Height: to 30 metres
Lifespan: up to 150 years but usually 60-90 years
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

The Silver Birch is a UK-native, deciduous, upright tree that can gain up to 30 metres in height. It grows well under both full sun and partial shade. It is easily identified as it has attractive, white, peeling bark. Its leaves are triangular in shape, with an alternate arrangement on stalks that are reddish-brown in colour. In terms of the seasonal interest, its foliage colour changes from green to yellow in autumn. During the spring, yellowish-brown catkins (flowers) appear.

The silver birch has several notable characteristics, for example it has a high drought tolerance level, whilst at the same time being able to grow well under frost conditions. It can flourish on most types of soil except where conditions are highly acidic and, as a pioneer tree species, it grows rapidly from seeds. The silver birch tends to grow in lowland areas rather than hilly or mountainous ones and it thrives particularly as part of mixed coniferous and broadleaved woodland. There are several fine birch woods in the countryside around Sheffield, for example near the Surprise View on the way to Hathersage and, a little further afield, around Birchover. Birch is often one of the first to colonise a site, as can be seen in the Burbage Brook valley following the recent clearance of the conifer planation.

As a wildlife habitat, the birch is believed to provide places to live and food to eat for more than 300 insect species as well as a range of birds and small mammals. For instance, aphids on leaves provide a rich source of food for ladybirds; leaves are the main food source for moth caterpillars and birds such as woodpeckers find a home in the tree stem.

The wood of the silver birch is known to be tough and heavy and therefore suitable for commercial use eg in furniture making. The trees in Britain, however, do not grow tall enough to make them commercially viable so their principal use is as feature or ‘landmark’ trees in parks and gardens. Their distinctive white, peeling bark and elegant drooping branches make them eye-catching, particularly when planted together as a stand of silver birches.

Birches have long been considered as a symbol of purity.