Trees on the Common: Birch

Trees on the Common: Birch

This week: The cold snap brought beautiful clear skies and for many of us an increased appreciation for everything our open spaces offer. Fledglings are fledging: I counted 32 starlings in one flock on ‘Stepping Stones meadow’; swans and their cygnets are enjoying Barnes Pond and Beverley Brook; and at Leg-o-Mutton, the welcome news that Pochard chicks have been seen.

Our native yellow flag iris and dog rose are both in flower. Unfortunately, the lack of showery weather combined with more than twice the normal number of people out and about means wear and tear is very evident. Will’s excellent blog is a great read and covers this in more detail.

Birch Grove


Birch is a member of a large family (Betulaceae) that includes Alder, Hazel and Hornbeam, among others. It survives further north than most trees and is widespread across Russia and Scandinavia. One of the few trees with a typical shorter life-span than humans, to reach an age of sixty is exceptional and forty quite frequent. Growing easily from seed, large numbers of tiny winged seeds blow far on the wind and thrive best when landing on bare soil. Birch is a ‘pioneer’ tree, one of the first to colonise bare ground before other species can get a foothold. It is soon shaded out by others as woodland succession kicks in.  Probably the first trees to re-establish after the Ice Age, they also germinate quickly after heath or forest fires, or when land is cleared. Birch grow rapidly and their naturally high canopy probably make them less vulnerable to grazing than some trees.

There are two types found on the Common:

Silver Birch (Betula pendula) is typical of sandy heath land.  It has a light canopy with the end twigs on the branches hanging down – hence the name.  It has small toothed leaves that are roughly triangular with slightly rounded corners at the base.  Bark on young saplings is reddish, becoming white/silver with a little age.  The bark then develops dark horizontal lines and diamonds (a distinctive mark of silver birch).  Older trees develop dark, fissured bark close to the base of the trunk.  In Spring, just as the leaf burst starts, the male catkin buds (present as a tight packed bud through winter) will lengthen and droop down, while the shorter females will stand up.  Birch pollen can be a problem for hay fever sufferers.

Downy (B pubescens) looks very similar and it is difficult to spot the difference: leaves are rounder and less toothed, whilst the bark has horizontal striations but no dark diamonds. You are more likely to find downy birch in woodland or damper valley areas. The two are known to hybridise and we suspect that many of our trees are natural hybrids, which makes identification even more tricky!

Uses: Birch is technically a hard wood, but due to being relatively short-lived, rarely provides timber for anything as large as a beam. It is, however, a source for plywood as the thin layers can be sliced off (like a giant pencil sharpener) before being bonded together. Birch burns well and warm, does not spit and splits easily.  Bundles of twigs with a little wax dripped on them make excellent firelighters.

Besoms: The gardener’s traditional favourite broom is made from a bound bundle of fresh birch twigs.  Originally bound with two strips of willow, most are now made with wire bindings. Once bound reasonably tightly, a pole handle of hazel is driven into the top end of the bound bunch to ensure a tight fit.  New brooms are good for sweeping up leaves and as the ends wear down, the stubbier broom is perfect for tougher jobs such as brushing moss out of lawns. The peak demand for besom brooms probably came after the Black Death when new laws required everyone in London to sweep outside their house to keep the streets clean. Today the number of traditional craftsmen making besoms has dwindled to a handful, along with the coppiced birch needed for supplies. Now there is a challenge for FoBC!

Witchcraft: the origins of the association of besoms with witchcraft are hazy to say the least.  It appears that brooms have long been associated with sweeping away bad luck and sweeping in good, and featured in many rituals around fertility, both in the home and for crops in the field.  One version has women riding brooms like a hobby horse around a field to bring good crops: it does not require much imagination to see how someone else’s good crops must have been due to witchcraft – or that women were seen flying on their broomsticks. There are many superstitions around besoms: do not use the same broom indoors and outdoors; do not burn an old broom; if moving home leave the old broom behind with the old house and start afresh with new ones; if the broom falls over, beware unwelcome visitors… sweep clockwise to draw in positive energy; sweep anticlockwise to chase out negative energy; leave a broom on your bed if you go away to guard it. A more modern idea might be to lock up your besom at Halloween – to prevent a keen trick-or-treater making off with it.

Fly Agaric under BirchFungi: Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) this red, white-spotted toadstool on a white stem has become an easily recognisable symbol of almost all fungi. Widely depicted in books, toys, greeting cards and cartoons, they get a mention here because they live in symbiosis with Birch (and Pine) and will be found on the Common around some of our Silver Birch. Highly poisonous and hallucinogenic in small concentrations, one must wonder if some of the associations of Birch trees with sorcery and witchcraft have to do with the enjoyment of this symbiotic relationship.

Paper: Birch bark seems to have been quite widely used before paper became available, notably on the Indian subcontinent. Although written records of any kind from more than a thousand years ago are very scarce, there are extant examples of sacred texts from the first century written on the bark of birch.

Syrup:  Birch sap can be ‘tapped’, and it is gaining in popularity as people seek out ‘healthy alternatives’ to sugar. It has its own distinct flavour and like the better-known maple syrup, involves a lot of reduction to create the syrup. It can be almost as sweet as sugar at roughly two-thirds of the calories.

Native American uses:  Abundant and generally growing larger, particularly in the north eastern reaches of North America, Native Americans found many uses for Birch: small trees provided lodge poles and birch bark strips were used to create shelters and light canoes. The Ray Mears link at the end of this article is compelling viewing and gives a glimpse into this highly skilled, traditional craft.

A thing of beauty:  Tall trunks, a high, light canopy offering dappled shade that enables grasses and other plants to grow beneath them – what is not to love? A birch grove is an artist’s favourite and an attractive feature in almost any landscape.

Next week: Sycamore and Plane


Ray Mears Birchbark Canoe

Photo credits: Trees M Hildesley; Fungi S Morgan