By Galyna Vakulenko on December 3, 2018
Tree Spotlight Series: Follow along as we learn about the fascinating trees that live among us. This series is in partnership with Rhee Lab in the Plant Biology Department of the Carnegie Institution for Science.
The Northern European countryside often brings to mind an image of the ground covered in snow and the trees silvery-white against a blue sky. The silver birch (Betula pendula) is a ubiquitous tree growing all over boreal and temperate Europe and Asia.
The silver birch is a tall, elegant tree with serrated leaves, drooping branches, and eye-catching white bark. The white bark is an adaptation to growing in the north—it reflects the sun’s glare from the snow, which can be so bright that it can damage the tree otherwise.
Birches are also known for the way their bark peels off in strips, which allows it to grow faster.
Birch bark has many uses. Before paper was commonplace, the inner bark was used as parchment. In the 1950s, old and surprisingly well-preserved East Slavic manuscripts from the 1400s were discovered in Russia. These manuscripts, many of which were personal letters and were written in an informal tone, revealed much about the language and culture of these people.
The silver birch is a fast-growing tree and was among the first to colonize the barren ground following the ice age. It is one of the first trees to bloom in the spring. Fittingly, the Ukrainian word for March is berezen (“березень”), meaning “of the birch”, as this is when the birch tree starts to produce sap.
It is often used as a symbol for rebirth and new beginnings. In Celtic mythology, the birch boughs were used to chase out the old year. Herding a cow with a birch branch was thought to make it more fertile. In Slavic culture, planting birch trees around your home was thought to protect it from harm. Additionally, baby cradles were made of birch wood to protect them from evil.
The silver birch was also used as a common medicine. Birch bark could be placed on the skin to soothe pain and swelling. Extracts from birch bark were also ingested and said to cure many things, including digestive problems and high blood pressure.
Silver birch bark contains a large amount of the triterpene betulin and its derivative betulinic acid. Betulinic acid has anti-inflammatory and anti-malarial activity. Additionally, both compounds were recently discovered to be effective against certain tumors, and are currently being tested as a potential treatment for some human cancers.
The silver birch was crucial part of early European culture and lifestyle. It was introduced to North America as an ornamental tree where it can now be found in parks all over the United States, dazzling people with its hardiness and elegant beauty.
Note: Canopy does not recommend planting the silver birch in the Midpeninsula as it is not suitable for the climate and requires ample watering to keep the tree healthy. To learn more about trees that Canopy recommends to plant, see our Trees to Plant Now articles here and here.
Galyna Vakulenko was a 2018 summer intern at the Rhee Lab in the Plant Biology Department of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University. She is an undergraduate student majoring in plant physiology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.