The versatile Björk

The birch is a graceful tree given less recognition than it deserves. Which is about to change, right?

Needless to say, like all Scotland’s native trees, birch in the wild has declined markedly over the last two centuries. Considered a “weed” among trees by commercial foresters, birch woodland has been felled and cleared to make way for coniferous timber crops. Yet it is still one our most abundant trees, relatively speaking.

But even so, many remaining birch woods are dying through lack of regeneration. The birch is short-lived by tree standards, and the young seedlings in many areas are being annihilated by grazing sheep and browsing rabbits and deer.

There are in the main two types of native birch: the silver birch (Betula pendula) and the downy birch (Betula pubescens). It is from the silver birch that many of our garden varieties are bred.

A single birch can make a wonderful specimen tree in any garden. It is a small-leaved tree, so casts little shade, which is an important consideration if grown near a house. This lack of shade also means a wider range of plants will survive and thrive around it. It is not at all fussy as to soil requirements. Indeed, in the wild, birch can be found growing in such diverse conditions as sandy coastal areas, wet peaty moorland, and even lodged in rocky mountain crevices. So whatever the soil in your garden, it shouldn’t present a problem to a birch.

The small, light green leaves turn to rich gold in autumn, and make a colourful contribution to the late-season hues in your garden.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this tree is the bark. The silver birch itself, as it gets older, develops a flaky silvery-grey bark quite unlike any other tree. And other cultivated varieties have been carefully selected by nurserymen down the years for the qualities of the bark.

One of the most widely planted is Betula jacquemontii, which has brilliant white bark, and will ultimately reach about 15m. Of similar height is Betula utilis, the bark of which can be copper-brown, or pinkish-brown, and peels readily. Betula nigra has shaggy reddish bark, while Betula lutea has yellowish bark. The latter can grow to over 20m.

Too big for you?

How about Betula nana? Known as the Arctic birch, or dwarf birch, this one grows to a massive two feet (60cm) tall! It is more a shrub than a tree in habit, spreading to about 1.2m across.

My recommendations?

Betula pendula purpurea grows to around 10m, and has purple-tinged bark and dark purple leaves.

Betula pendula youngii grows to 8m, and is a beautiful weeping tree, ideal in the middle of a lawn.

Now, what can I inject into an article about a tree to make it interesting to my BritishExpat fanclub?

Well, you can make alcohol from it.

A rather palatable white wine can be made, not from flowers or leaves, but from the sap of the birch. Only a mature tree can be used – draining too much of the “life-blood” of a younger tree may kill it.

The trunk needs to be drilled, and a rubber plug or bung fitted, with a piece of tubing inserted. As the sap rises in spring, it may be drained via the tubing into a suitable container. Be kind to the tree. Don’t take too much. Enough for a gallon, say, then replace the tubing with a solid bung, so the sap doesn’t escape. Then start again the following spring. The sap is fermented in the usual way.

Birch sap wine is now sold by many of the “Country Wine” producers.

And finally, an interesting musical footnote – the Old Norse word for birch is Björk.

I will resist all temptation to return to the topic of rubber plugs and the insertion of tubing.

We just don’t wanna go there.

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About Mike Clark

Mike discovered the joys of horticulture when, as a small child, he overheard a neighbour say she'd dropped a sixpence in the tattie patch. He has been digging ever since, with the tenacity of a true Scot, hoping one day to find a fiver. Despite now running his own landscape gardening business, Mike claims to be permanently broke, due in part to his quest for fame resulting in writing gardening columns for free. He likes trees, Jack Russells, and 12 year old Glen Ord, but not necessarily in that order. Gifts of any of these can be sent c/o, but he would like to point out that the third item is by far the easiest and cheapest to post. One of the highlights of his life was winning a toilet brush in a raffle. He persevered with it for ages, but he's back on the paper now... Mike approaches gardening and writing with exactly the same formula. Throw in plenty of manure, and something good will eventually spring up.

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