Tree of the Week: The bonuses of birch
The European White Birch -- Betula pendula
For thousands of years our ancestors from colder areas in Europe and Asia have used a treasure trove of gifts from the everywhere occurring European White Birch. They made canoes with its almost indestructible papery bark, fermented the sugary spring sap into beer or wine, brewed tea from its leaves, shampooed their hair and tanned their leather with its various extracts, danced around a skinned May pole trunk during fertility rites, "birched" the bottoms of their unfortunate children with bundles tied from its branches (not the treeâ€™s fault) and stoked their fires with its hot burning wood. Pharmaceuticals extracted from the bright white bark may bring us even more presents in the future.
We get introduced to this beautiful tree in Grimm Brothers fairy tales or Disney movies, we love it for its lacy appearance, white bark and yellow fall color and we keep planting it here although it prefers cooler places over our warm and summer dry climate.
The deciduous European White Birch grows at a moderate pace to 30-to-40 feet tall and half as wide; its life may stay short of the half century mark. Main branches are upright, side branches weep. Eventually the whole tree assumes a weeping character, more so in some varieties than in other ones.
On young twigs the bark is smooth and golden; in later life it becomes bright white and is punctuated by horizontal brown lenticels (breathing pores), until it finally turns black and furrowed at the base of the trunk. The bark peels off in thin strips.
Diamond shaped, 2Â½-inch long, toothed, glossy green leaves end in a tapered point. Inconspicuous male flowers are clustered in tight, yellowish brown, hanging catkins of up to 2Â½ inches long. Female flowers are arranged in upright, greenish catkins half that size. They are followed by drooping, soft, cone like fruit that disintegrates into small seeds in late summer.
This tree looks sad without regular water. It prefers full sun to part shade. It will live in uneasy alliance with lawns, where surface roots may develop, but it does better without competition. Unavoidable aphids will drip their honeydew secretions on the ground below; to avoid borers it is best to limit pruning as much as possible.
Many varieties exist within the species, from dwarf to narrow upright and purple leafed. Other species are worth considering. The wood has a beautiful, satiny sheen, but is only good for indoor applications. The tree is a member of the Betulaceae or birch family, which includes alder (Alnus) and hornbeam (Carpinus).
Photo: Peter Severynen