One of the main attributes of Birch trees are the various colours of bark. These vary from shades of white, red, pink, orange and brown, peeling and in some cases even a shaggy appearance. The leaves also offer a vivid autumn show of yellow hues. We wrote a blog post earlier in the year called Autumn colour: Beautiful bark
If you like woodpeckers, plant a silver birch tree. They often nest in its trunk along with other hole-nesting birds.
Hundreds of insects find birches to have great 'supermarket' potential - food is in plentiful supply for them here.
Ladybirds like feasting on the aphids that gather together on the leaves.
A good habitat for fungi
Birch trees also make a good habitat for fungi, including yummy chanterelle mushrooms.
They provide pollen for bees
In spring around April and May, the catkins birch trees produce (the equivalent to their flowers) provide pollen for bees. Both female and male catkins will appear on the tree. Male versions tend to be in clusters and look like lambs' tails. Female types tend to be more upright.
An ideal setting for...
Because birch trees have a light, open canopy when planted together, they make an ideal setting for mosses, bluebells, violets and wood sorrel to grow.
Four different varieties of birch
At Ashridge, we supply four different varieties of birch: the Downy, Himalayan, Silver, and Paperbark. They come in standard form which means that they are measured by their girth in centimetres one metre above ground level (essentially their trunk's waist measurement). They aren't measured by their height, which will vary. So, a 6/8 standard has a trunk with a circumference of 6-8 centimetres and an 8/10 standard has a trunk 8-10 centimetres around. This measurement makes no difference to the tree's final height which can be around 20 metres.
Birches in Park Lane
We've recently spied a cluster of silver birch in London at the bottom of Park Lane near the Winter Wonderland site in Hyde Park. They look really striking and Christmassy with their silver bark. We recommend that when you are ordering a large quantity of Silver Birch for a big project like this you buy the smaller plants: graded at 40/60cms or 60/80cms. They are cheaper than larger plants, easier to handle and more likely to cope well with poor conditions. In garden design, they can be wonderfully architectural.
Used in furniture
Birch wood does not have much commercial value in Britain; it is grown more as a timber tree in Scandinavia. The wood is pale, smooth and light. It is used mostly for furniture and plywood. Smaller trees are good for making tool and brush handles as well as toys. In the old days, the wood was used to make things like spools, bobbins, boxes and handles.
You can make an alcoholic mead from Silver Birch sap, which tastes like sugary water in spring. The drink doesn't taste particularly wonderful though which is why it is not that popular today.
Not great as fire wood
In the past, birch resin was boiled down to make a decent glue. Today, it is sometimes used as a coppice tree for firewood, harvested every three to four years. Silver birch doesn't make the best firewood in the world, burning bright and hot but quickly; its main strength as a source of firewood is that it will be ready to harvest before most other trees that were planted at the same time. Artist-grade charcoal is made from the bark.
But good as a fire-lighting fuel
The oily, waterproof bark of Paper birch does however make good fire-lighting fuel. It is also good firewood but it needs to be seasoned for a couple of years. This bark was used extensively by the Native Americans for a wide range of products, including making paper.
The UK's most common broad-leaved tree
The birch tree is one of the UK's most common broad-leaved trees. The Downy birch or common white birch tree is however more prolific in Scotland and grows a bit taller. Downy birch has a greyish bark that doesn't peel and grows in most conditions well with the exception of in chalky soil.