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Betula pendula: the tree for all seasons and all situations

If we were asked for advice about which is the best and most suitable tree for planting in a small garden, then Ladybrook Nursery would have little hesitation recommending the Silver Birch. As far as we’re concerned the Betula pendula is the tree for all seasons. Valued for its distinctive white bark – a characteristic few other plants can boast – this tree is the most widely used tree in both contemporary and traditional garden design.

So what makes the Silver Birch such a favourite amongst garden designers and plant aficionados? Well, the Betula pendula has few peers in terms of colour, versatility and architectural appeal. What’s more, it’s very easy to grow. It’s the perfect tree for small temperate gardens, and will bring scale, colour and texture to any garden space, yet because of its slender nature it casts very little shade. Not only is the Silver Birch a tree for all seasons: it’s also a tree for all situations.

Betula pendula: basic facts at a glance

  • Slender deciduous tree, up to 30m tall.
  • Smooth, silvery-white bark that develops deep, dark fissures with age.
  • Oval leaves have double-toothed serrations along edges and neither leaf stems nor leaves are hairy (that’s downy birch).
  • Male catkins are long, drooping and yellow.
  • Female catkins are slender, green and are upright when flowering, drooping in fruit.
  • Leaves turn yellow and then golden in autumn.

Background

The graceful silver birch is one of the most familiar trees of the British countryside. It’s a genuine native species, and has been growing here since the end of the Ice Age. Its papery-white bark – which is pink-tinged in young trees – distinguishes it from the rarer downy birch (Betula pubescens).

This birch species is usually found in wetter habitats in the uplands and has reddish bark which turns grey with age.

  • Betula pendula will eventually grow to approximately 30 metres high.
  • As it matures with silvery-white bark becomes black and fissured with age.
  • The young twigs often droop; leaves are small and simple with a toothed margin.
  • The flowers are wind-pollinated, grouped into catkins; the males long, loose and hanging down, the females shorter, stiff and erect.
  • Female catkins disintegrate at the fruiting stage to release plentiful, tiny winged seeds which are dispersed by the wind.
  • Catkins appear early in spring and release their pollen in clouds during April. The leaves emerge shortly after, a bright emerald green at first, turning golden in autumn.
  • The leaves of silver birch are small and roughly diamond-shaped. They are toothed on both sides and borne on slender warty twigs that shiver in the slightest breeze. 
  • Birch saplings also share this tendency to sway in the wind.
  • As a tree ages, its bark darkens, and becomes rougher, more fissured and more prone to attack by the birch polypore fungus, Piptoporus betulinus.
  • The gherkin-shaped fruiting catkins turn brown in winter and, helped by birds, release tiny winged ‘nutlets’.

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