The Silver Birch - a robust and gracious British native tree


The Silver Birch - a robust and gracious British native tree

The silver birch is a slender elegant medium-sized British native tree. Famed for its white bark and its catkin blossoms and an attractive sight in its natural habitats, the tree is an increasingly popular choice as a decorative addition to new urban developments, as it grows very quickly and copes with a wide range of conditions.

The silver birch tree grows fast in its youth, eventually reaching 25 metres on average, and can live up to 200 years. It owes its name to the peeling white bark on its trunk. Young birch trees have smooth bark which peels off in horizontal strips as they get older, resulting in deep ridges.

The widespreading roots allow the tree to survive mineral-poor soils by absorbing nutrients from afar. That and its tolerance to pollution make the silver birch a common sight in urban landscapes such as industrial areas and roadsides, as well as parks and gardens.

Silver birch is a pioneer tree, meaning it is one of the first to colonise new (or cleared) land. It grows widely across the UK preferring a drier, sandier soil than the downy birch, which is more common in Ireland and Scotland, and at higher altitudes.

The silver birch bears both male and female flowers - called catkins - during spring, on different stems. The male catkins are long, yellow and hanging, while the females are short, bright green and erect.   

Silver birches provide food and habitat to more than 300 insect species. The nutrient-filled leaves are a great source of food for aphids, which are consumed by ladybirds and other species further up the food chain. Woodpeckers and other hole-nesting birds often make their homes in the trunk, while the seeds are eaten by birds such as siskin and green finches.

It is popular for its hardwood to make furniture and plywood, and more recently, for skateboards providing a stable and flexible ride. Some species of birch, such as silver birch, have a pungent aroma which is used in leather oil and is also used in cosmetics, such as soap and shampoo.

Further reading

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