Of forest trees, the Lady of the Woods'
The Birches have a beauty, elegance and almost feminine delicacy about them. As Fiona Stafford rather wonderfully puts it, they 'are the ugly ducklings of the tree word; their brown unassuming saplings developing a swan-like beauty as they grow'. But they are also tough customers that can pioneer the way into the most hostile of environments. This 'Lady of the Woods' provides an attractive pale timber, medicines and even a decent wine; but it also has an historical association with punishment, pain, gunpowder and fascism. In short, the Birches can be a bit of a paradox.
The Birches (Betula sp) are in the Betulaceae family; a family that also includes Hazels, Alders and Hornbeam. They have a long ancestry with a fossil record dating back more than 65 million years and have been around long enough to have survived dinosaur browsing. There are now around 60 species in northern Europe, North America and Asia.
There are three Birches native to Britain, but one is the Dwarf Birch (Betula nana) which grows at high altitudes in Scotland and gets to about 4ft at most - so it's a bit of a stretch to call it a tree. The remaining two are the Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and the Downy Birch (Betula pubescens) which will have been among the first vegetation to colonise our shores after the retreat of the last ice age in the Mesolithic period (c. 10000-6000 BC). At Star Carr in Yorkshire, which was occupied from about 8700 BC, an important archaeological site has found evidence of our oldest known dwelling, along with an 11000 year old birch tree trunk with its bark intact. It is an intrepid pioneering tree able to tolerate extreme cold and altitude. There are endless Birch forests in Canada and Siberia; the Himalayan Birch will grow at greater altitudes than even Spruce or Pine; it was a major component of the Caledonian forest and remains a dominant species of Scandinavian forests - as evidenced by a flick through any Ikea catalogue - a truly hardy tree. Birches have a live-fast-die-young strategy and can live for 80-200 years - though 200 is the exception with the average being nearer the 80.
I find it very difficult to tell the Silver Birch from the Downy Birch and some have argued that they are varieties of the same species. But we now know that Silver Birch is a diploid with 28 chromosomes, and Downy Birch a tetraploid with 56; so Downy Birch presumably arose from Silver Birch but is a separate species. Silver Birch tends to have the more graceful drooping branch ends which are particularly accentuated under the weight of catkins in the spring.
There is some diversity in leaf size and shape between the species, from the 6-12mm leafed Dwarf Birch to the 150mm leaf of the Monarch Birch of Japan (B. maximowicziana) - but the greatest variety is in the bark colour and texture - the feature for which they are most frequently used in amenity plantings. I've lost count of the landscaping schemes I've seen that include groups of Himalayan Birch for their wonderful snowy white bark; but Birch are also a good choice where space is limited or heavy shade is undesirable. And their glorious yellow autumn colour should not be underestimated. Here's a selection of barks:
Birch bark not only provides an attractive feature (I recall one author being in raptures about its effect in moonlight), but it has also proved to be an extremely useful material. The whiter barks in particular are rich in phenolics and some produce betulin making it waterproof. This biochemical barrier is almost imperishable - at the 11000 year old archeological dig at Star Carr mentioned above, some sheets of bark were found that had been rolled and tied into scrolls that are thought to have been used as fishing floats. The waterproofing and durability have also led to its use in roofing and boat building - native American Indians built canoes of wood clothed in Birch bark skin that was sewed with spruce roots and porcupine quills. In his 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's hero calls upon the Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis, to surrender its bark for his canoe.
Birches, like Cherries, have alternating layers of thin- and thick-walled cork cells resulting in the shedding of papery sheets, most commonly at the end of the growing season and especially after hot weather when shrinkage helps to loosen the bark. The description 'papery' is entirely appropriate since it has long been widely used for writing - the oldest known Hindu manuscripts are Birch bark. The bark also yields Birch Tar oil, once of considerable commercial importance in Russia, where it was used to dress and waterproof leather, giving it a distinctive smell that was considered a mark of quality. Books bound in Russia leather were resistant to mould.
The timber itself is not particularly durable but is attractive, cheap and easily worked. It is widely used for furniture and tool handles for indoor use and, thanks to its bountiful distribution in colder climes, it has been a vital source of firewood. Writing of the great Scottish Birchwoods, J. C. Loudoun describes how 'The Highlanders...make everything of it; they build their houses, make beds and chairs, tables, dishes and spoons; construct their mills; make their carts, ploughs, harrows, gates and fences, and even make rope from it. [It is a] fuel for distilling whiskey, the spray is used for smoking hams and herrings...bark is used for tanning leather and, sometimes, dried and twisted into a rope instead of candles. The spray is used for thatching houses; and, in summer, with the leaves on, makes a good bed'. Birch charcoal has also been much used for gunpowder.
But it is not the bark, timber or sap that have given Birch a darker history - it is the uses to which the branches have been put - and I don't mean the bundles of twigs used as broom ends. The name 'Birch' is synonymous with corporal punishment; flogging with Birch rods replaced the notorious 'cat o' nine tails' as punishment on British naval vessels in the 19th century - presumably it was thought less cruel - but probably still pretty nasty!
I have been unable to track down the definitive origin and meaning of the fasces with google. Why Birch rods? Why an axe head? But certainly one rod would likely break under the weight of an axe but collectively there is strength. This 'strength through unity' symbolism led to its use in the Lincoln memorial. Unnoticed by many, it is the major theme of the memorial - most obviously directly beneath the statue's hands (minus the axe) where thirteen rods represent the original thirteen states to gain independence from Britain, but also on the steps to the memorial (with the axe) and elsewhere. The building itself is supported, fasces-like, by 36 Doric columns representing the (then) 36 united states.
Carey, Frances - The Tree, Meaning and Myth
Johnson, Hugh - Trees
Mabey, Richard - Flora Britannica
Stafford, Fiona - The Long, Long Life of Trees
Thomas, Peter - Trees: Their Natural History
Tudge, Colin - The Secret Life of Trees
Photo of Himalayan Birch with the kind permission of The Planted Garden nursery