) is a widespread European birch, though in southern Europe it is only found at higher altitudes. Its range extends into southwest Asia in the mountains of northern Turkey and the Caucasus. The closely related Betula platyphylla
in northern Asia and Betula szechuanica
of central Asia are also treated as varieties of silver birch by some botanists, as B. pendula var. platyphylla
and B. pendula var. szechuanica
respectively (see birch classification).
It is a medium-sized deciduous tree, typically reaching 15–25 metres (49–82 ft) tall (exceptionally up to 39 metres (128 ft)), with a slender trunk usually under 40 centimetres (16 in) diameter, but exceptionally to 1 metre (3.3 ft) diameter, and a crown of arched branches with drooping branchlets. The bark is white, often with black diamond-shaped marks or larger patches, particularly at the base. The shoots are rough with small warts, and hairless, and the leaves 3–7 centimetres (1.2–2.8 in) long, triangular with a broad base and pointed tip, and coarsely double-toothed serrated margins. The flowers are wind-pollinated catkins, produced before the leaves in early spring, the small 1-2mm winged seeds ripening in late summer on pendulous, cylindrical catkins 2–4 centimetres (0.79–1.6 in) long and 7 mm broad.
It is distinguished from the related downy birch (B. pubescens
, the other common European birch) in having hairless, warty shoots (hairy and without warts in downy birch), more triangular leaves with double serration on the margins (more ovoid and with single serrations in downy birch), and whiter bark often with scattered black fissures (greyer, less fissured, in downy birch). It is also distinguished cytologically, silver birch being diploid (with two sets of chromosomes), whereas downy birch is tetraploid (four sets of chromosomes). Hybrids between the two are known, but are very rare, and being triploid, are sterile. The two have differences in habitat requirements, with silver birch found mainly on dry, sandy soils, and Downy Birch more common on wet, poorly drained sites such as clay soils and peat bogs. Silver birch also demands slightly more summer warmth than does downy birch, which is significant in the cooler parts of Europe. Many North American texts treat the two species as conspecific (and cause confusion by combining the downy birch's alternative vernacular name 'white birch', with the scientific name B. pendula
of the other species), but they are regarded as distinct species throughout Europe.
It commonly grows with the mycorrhizal fungus Amanita muscaria
in a mutualistic relationship. This applies particularly to acidic or nutrient poor soils. Other mycorrhizal associates include Leccinum scabrum
and Cantharellus cibarius
. Old trees are often killed by the decay fungus Piptoporus betulinus
, and the branches often have witch's brooms caused by the fungus Taphrina betulina
Cultivation and uses
Silver birch is often planted in parks and gardens, grown for its white bark and gracefully drooping shoots, sometimes even in warmer-than-optimum places such as Los Angeles and Sydney. In Scandinavia and other regions of northern Europe, it is grown for forest products such as lumber and pulp, as well as for aesthetic purposes and ecosystem services. It is sometimes used as a pioneer and nurse tree elsewhere. It is naturalised and locally invasive in parts of Canada. Birch brushwood is used for racecourse jumps, and the sap contains around 1% sugars and can be drunk or be brewed into a "wine". Historically, the bark was used for tanning. Silver birch wood can make excellent timber for carving kitchen utensils such as wooden spoons and spatulas: its very mild, sweet flavour does not contaminate food, and it has an attractive pale colour. Bark can be heated and the resin collected; the resin is an excellent water proof glue and firestarter.
Successful birch cultivation requires a climate cool enough for at least the occasional winter snowfall. As they are shallow rooted they may require water during dry periods. They grow best in full sun planted in deep, well-drained soil.
'Carelica' is called "curly birch" in Finland; "curly" refers to grain of the wood.
'Laciniata'agm (commonly misidentified as 'Darlecarlica') has deeply incised leaves and weeping branches.
'Purpurea' has dark purple leaves.
'Tristis'agm has an erect trunk with weeping branchlets.
'Youngii' has dense, twiggy weeping growth with no central leader, requiring grafting onto a standard stem of normal Silver Birch.
The species, together with those cultivars marked agm above, have gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
The outer part of the bark contains up to 20% betulin. The main components in the essential oil of the buds are a-copaene (~10%), germacrene D (~15%) and d-cadinene (~13%).
Synonyms include Betula pendula var. carelica
(Merckl.) Hamet-Ahti, B. pendula var. laciniata
(Wahlenb.) Tidestr., B. pendula var. lapponica
(Lindq.) Hamet-Ahti, B. aetnensis Raf.
, B. montana V.N.Vassil
, B. talassica Poljakov
, B. verrucosa Ehrh
., B. verrucosa var. lapponica Lindq
., and B. fontqueri Rothm
. The rejected name Betula alba L.
also applied in part to B. pendula
, though also to B. pubescens
. Silver Birch has also sometimes been called Weeping Birch or European Weeping Birch.
Silver Birch is Finland's national tree. Occasionally one uses leafy, fragrant boughs of Silver Birch to gently beat oneself in a sauna. The boughs are called vihta or vasta. This has a relaxing effect on the muscles.
Land of the Silver Birch is a traditional Canadian folk song, though the birch referred to is actually a different species, Paper Birch Betula papyrifera
In Sweden, the bark of birch trees was ground up and used to make a form of bread. The removal of bark was at one time so widespread that Carl Linnaeus expressed his concern for the survival of the woodlands.