Silver Birch

Silver birches around our hut

The Silver Birch is a great pioneer. It is one of the first trees to appear in abandoned land or to recolonise land after a fire. It grows quickly and helps to provide an environment for other plants and animals to establish themselves. In the spring, the birch tree is one of the first to grow new leaves.

Birches are easily recognised by their white, papery bark. The Silver Birch has ‘drooping’ branches with triangular leaves which have jagged edges that grow from hairless leaf stalks. The leaves of the similar Downy Birch grow from hairy stalks and are more rounded; it also has more upright branches.
In spring, the male catkins (often known as ‘lamb’s tails’) turn yellow and shed their pollen, which is carried by the wind to the short, green, female catkins that appear on the same tree.

When fully grown they can reach 30m in height. As they grow older the bark develops dark, diamond-shaped fissures.


  • Birch wood is tough and heavy, making it suitable for furniture production, handles and toys.
  • Birch wood was once used to make hardwearing bobbins, spools and reels for the Lancashire cotton industry.
  • Birchwood is now used to make plywood, wooden backs for brushes and also toys.
  • Birch bark is used for tanning leather.

Biodiversity rating:

  • Birch woodlands have a light, open canopy, which allows lots of light through to the ground providing the perfect growing conditions for grasses, mosses and woodland flowers such as wood anemones, bluebells, wood sorrel and violets.
  • Silver birch provides food and habitat for more than 300 insect species. The leaves attract aphids, sometimes in huge numbers, which are a main food for ladybirds and other species further up the food chain including members of the tit family.
  • The leaves feed the caterpillars of many different moths.
  • Lots of fungi feed on birch trees including fly agaric, woolly milk cap, birch milk cap, birch brittlegill, birch knight, chanterelle and the birch polypore (razor strop).
  • The soft wood of the trunks provides homes for woodpeckers and other hole-nesting birds.
  • Birches produce a huge amount of small seed which allows it to spread easily far and wide. These seeds are eaten by many birds such as siskins, greenfinches and redpolls.

Mythology and symbolism:

In early Celtic mythology the birch was known as ‘The Lady of the Woods’ and symbolised renewal and purification. Bundles of birch twigs tied together were used to drive out the spirits of the old year. Gardeners still use the birch besom, or broom, to ‘purify’ their gardens or to sweep up leaves. It is also used as a symbol of love and fertility. On Midsummer’s Eve, branches from the birch trees would be hung around doors of people’s homes in the hopes that they would bring good luck and guard against any evil misfortune.

In Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, and a pregnant cow would bear a healthy calf.

The Birch Tree was the centre of the Beltane Festival, now more commonly known to us as May Day. Maypoles would be made from birch wood and everyone would gather and dance round the maypole to ensure a fruitful harvest that year.