The recent bouts of heavy rain have washed most of the catkins from the silver birches, they now carpet the ground.
They are also draped over the dying lilac flowers like crumbly caterpillars.
The silver birch tree, Betula pendula, is native to the UK and much of northern Europe. Each tree forms both male and female catkins, the males are longer and yellowish. As you may have guessed from their shape they have evolved to be wind pollinated. The distinctive white bark is thought to protect the tree in exposed areas by reflecting sunlight. They are considered a pioneer species as they are often the first to colonise an area.
Birch woodland has a more open canopy allowing sunlight for grasses and flowers such as bluebells and primroses to flourish. It is thought that birch trees support over 300 insect species, along with the birds that feed on them. Their seeds are also food for other birds. Birch is also a host species for many fungi, including fly agaric.
The silver birch is associated with fertility and considered to be effective against evil. It was often used as the maypole during May day celebrations. The pole represents the spirit of the forest which springs into life at the beginning of May. Birch trees are among the first to produce their leaves in spring. People would dance around the maypole to encourage fertility in their crops, animals and themselves. During the Commonwealth, the period when Cromwell’s Parliament ruled rather than a monarchy, such events were considered lewd and were banned between 1649 -1660.
Besom brooms were made from bundles of birch twigs and would purify as they swept and cleaned. Later these brooms would be associated with witches.
Silver birches are also the bushcrafter’s favourite tree. Not only does the bark make excellent tinder, but the wood is used in friction firelighting. The wood is hard, yet easily carved into utensils, while the bark can be worked into making containers. The leaves make a natural soap. You can tap it for sap just before it comes into leaf and drink the sugary liquid. In 1565 Matthiolus (a Siamese physician) claimed the sap broke up bladder and kidney stones.
The silver birch is the national tree of Finland. A bundle of twigs, with leaves attached is used to beat the skin during a Finnish sauna to increase circulation and open up the pores.
A more sinister use of the very hard birch rod is that of “birching”. This involves beating someone, usually on their bare buttocks, as a form of punishment. It was adopted by the Royal Navy in the 1860s as a replacement for the Cat O’ Nine Tails. Prisons soon followed, though it had long been a popular punishment in schools (with the masters, not the school children, obviously). It was abolished in much of the UK as a judicial punishment in 1948, though it continued to be used in prisons on the Isle of Man until 1976. Trinidad is thought to be the only country that retains it as an official punishment.
Finally, it is also a beautiful tree.