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The Birch

UK Garden Centre - Information about the Birch tree

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Family Betulaceae
Betula pendula

“The Lady of the Woods”, as Coleridge christened the Birch, is at once the most graceful, the hardiest, and the most ubiquitous of our forest trees. It grows throughout the length and breadth of our islands, and seems happy alike in a London common, in a suburban garden, or up to an altitude of 2,500 feet in the Scottish highlands.
It penetrates farther north than any other tree, and its presence is a great boon to the natives of Lapland. It will grow where it is subjected to great heat, as well as where it must endure extreme cold, with its slender roots exploring the beds of peat, the rich humus of the old wood, or the raw soil of the mountainside, where it has to cling to rocks and a few mosses. Given plenty of light, it seems to care for little else.
Though a mere shrub in the far north, with us the Birch has a trunk sometimes as tall as eighty, but more frequently fifty feet, and a girth of from two to three feet. In its first decade it increases in height at the rate of a foot and a half to two feet a year; but, of course, there is little breadth to be built up at the same time. It reaches maturity in half a century, and before the other half is reached the Birch will have passed away.
The bark of the Birch is more enduring than its timber, which may be partly due to its habit of casting off the outer layer in shreds, like fine tissue paper, from time to time. The greater part of the bark is silvery white, which adds to the apparent slenderness of the tree, and makes it conspicuous from a long distance; for the attenuated and drooping branches, dressed in small and loosely hung leaves, sway so constantly that the trunk is scarcely hidden.
The glossy, leathery leaves vary in shape, from a triangular form to a pointed oval, their edges deeply toothed, and their foot-stalks long and slender.
About April the hanging catkins of the Birch, which were in evidence in the previous autumn, have matured and become dark crimson; the scales separate and expose the two stamens of each flower, which has a single sepal. The female flowers are in a short, more erect spike, which consists of overlapping scales, each containing two or three flowers. These flowers have neither petals nor sepals, consisting merely of an ovary with two slender styles. After fertilization the female spike has developed into a little oblong cone.
The minute nuts have a pair of delicate wings to each, and as they are set free from the cones they flutter on the breeze like a swarm of small flies. The moss that usually covers the ground beneath the Birch will be found, in October, to be thickly speckled with these fruits, which are something more than seeds; they are really analogous to the acorn – a nut within a thin shell.
The tree sometimes begins to produce seed when only fifteen years old; but as a rule, it is ten years older before it bears, and thereafter a crop every year.
Birch-bark is used for tanning certain kinds of leather, and the peculiar odour of “Russian leather” is said to be due to the use of Birch in its preparation. The Birch agrees with the Beech in two respects – it is of little value for timber, but as a nurse to young timber-trees it is of considerable importance.


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