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In these troubled times, I think we can always find comfort and pleasure in Nature. As we undergo the worst crisis that most of us can remember, Nature continues on her course. I’m writing this on 20th March, which is the Vernal Equinox; the astronomical start of Spring when the hours of darkness are equal to those of daylight. Everywhere in the Rec, there are signs of life renewing itself, from the buds on the trees to emerging bumblebees and the gathering chorus of birdsong.
The tree associated with renewal and purification in Celtic mythology was the Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year. The belief persisted through time and miscreants were ‘birched’ supposedly to expel evil spirits, which was also the reason Birch twigs were used in the ancient custom of Beating the Bounds.
There are 3 silver birches in the Rec and they are one of our most recognizable of our native trees. Having not yet come into leaf, their two most characteristic features are very apparent.
The first, and most obvious is their silver- white trunk with its scattered black fissures; it sheds layers of bark that resemble tissue paper. The name itself is thought to have derived from the Sanskrit word bhurga meaning ‘a tree whose bark is used to write on’. As the tree ages, the trunk, becomes more rugged with diamond shape crevices and a dark base.
The other feature is its graceful, pendulous habit as reflected in its Latin name, pendula. Its clusters of reddish coloured twigs are elegantly draped and lift in the wind, looking like fronds of seaweed bobbing on the water’s surface. Seen in winter light, groups of silver birches are very distinctive with their white trunk and the purplish red haze of their canopy.
The male catkins form in autumn with two or three at the tip of the twigs, and their reddish brown scales add to the overall tinge of the trees’ winter garb. They develop fully by April or May to coincide with the growth of the more upright female catkins. Both male and female catkins occur on the same tree, and pollination and subsequent seed dispersal relies on the wind.
The leaves are triangular in shape, irregularly toothed and appear towards the end of April. They are borne on slender stalks which allow them to twist and flutter in the breeze adding to the tree’s slightly ethereal quality. In autumn the leaves turn to bright yellow.
Silver birch provides food and habitat for about 300 species of insect, including the caterpillars of many moths. It is also associated with specific fungi such as birch brittlegill, birch milk cap and fly algaric.
This familiar tree has been celebrated in a series of beautiful paintings by the artist Gustav Klimt and justly deserves the epithet given by the Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge; “the most beautiful of forest trees, the Lady of the Woods”
Additional notes for March 2020:
In the above posting, I talked about the Silver Birch trees at the Rec, but the observant amongst you may have noticed another, but slightly different Birch, at the corner of the Grosvenor Road entrance. Its bark is startlingly white and difficult to miss especially at this time of year.
This tree is Betula Utilis,, a rather prosaic epithet for a very beautiful tree, which is naturally found growing on the high slopes of the Himalayas. Unlike our native Silver birch, it has a more upright habit and open pyramidal shape. However, it does resemble it, in that the male and female catkins appear on the same tree. The male catkins are formed in the autumn and hang in 3s and 4s from the end of the twigs. They are reddish brown and described as looking like lambs’ tails, but in my rather fanciful mind, I see any number of birds’ feet hanging out to dry!! The catkins will soon begin to elongate and open, and the upright female catkins will develop making it easier for wind pollination to take place, before the tree is in full leaf. The leaves themselves are dark green, toothed and slightly lighter on the underside, causing them to shimmer in the breeze. Like the Silver Birch they turn a glorious yellow in the autumn.
The Sanskrit word for the tree is bhurja which is thought to be the origin of the more common name of birch, in this case, the Western Himalayan Birch. ‘Utilis’ is the Latin name of this species, and refers to the number of uses that various parts of the tree are put to, in its native range. It became known to the Western world in the early 1800s, when it was discovered in Nepal, and was given its current nomenclature in 1841. It was then adopted as an ornamental tree in parks and gardens, mainly for it’s brilliant white bark. This bark peels away in horizontal layers, resembling paper and hinting at the reddish brown heartwood underneath.
The bark was widely used as paper up until the 16th century and a number of ancient Sanskrit manuscripts written on birch bark have survived, including examples in the Bodleian and British libraries. The tradition of writing mantras on bark still exists, and they are carried as amulets around the neck or arm in order to provide protection for the wearer. More practical uses for the bark include packaging and roofing, while the wood has been used locally for building houses, bridges and other infrastructure. Various parts of the tree are also used in traditional medicines.
Sadly the tree is disappearing from many parts of its range and in places like Kashmir is considered to be ‘Critically Endangered’. This is partly due to the fact that the people living in the high altitude of the Himalayas rely heavily on the tree for firewood and fodder which has led to overharvesting. But other factors such as pollution and climate change also play a part.
Let’s hope that this wonderful tree does have a future in its rightful home, and next time you’re passing, please pause to admire the beautiful stranger living amongst us.