Silver birch (Betula pendula) is a deciduous tree with a slender shape and graceful appearance, which has given rise to its lovely name of the ‘lady of the woods’. Silver birch trees look attractive year-round with white bark, spring catkins and yellow autumn leaf colour. The catkins and seeds are popular with wildlife such as bees and birds, while several species of moth lay eggs on birch leaves.
Silver birch trees have an open branch structure that casts only light shade, enabling potential for underplanting around them. This makes them appropriate for all but very small gardens. While single-stemmed trees are most usual, multi-stemmed silver birches are available or are easy to create – these make gorgeous garden feature trees and won’t grow as large as a single tree. Multi-stemmed birches can even be grown in a large container or raised bed.
Identifying silver birch
Silver birch has white bark, which becomes marked with rugged dark cracks as it matures. As the tree grows, the bark often peels off in strips. Silver birch leaves are triangular-shaped and green, fading to bright yellow in autumn. In spring, male catkins are 6cm long and brown-yellow, and female catkins are 3cm long and green. If pollinated, female catkins become red-brown in colour and bear masses of tiny, winged seeds.
Betula pendula is the parent of several named, cultivated birches with a variety of ornamental attributes, including different growing shapes and habits. Weeping silver birch (Betula pendula ‘Youngii’) is distinctly different looking, forming a wide-spreading tree of weeping branches.
Size: height and spread
Silver birch growth rate is relatively fast. Ultimate height is likely to be at least 8-10m and with a spread of at least 5m. However, because the tree canopy is not heavy, the size of the tree is rarely dominating.
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Silver birch grows rapidly when young and establishes quickly, in fact it's known as a ‘pioneer’ tree because in the wild, it's often one of the first to grow from seed on bare ground. While silver birch isn’t the longest-lived ornamental tree, it should last for a few decades.
Value for wildlife
The tiny flowers of silver birch, borne on spring catkins, are attractive to bees and other pollinating insects. Silver birch seeds are popular with seed-eating birds such as blue tits, finches and goldcrests.
How to grow silver birch tree
Grow silver birch in any reasonable soil. Ideally plant when dormant, preferably in autumn. Stake your tree and keep well watered during dry spells for the first couple of years. Prune only if necessary, in late summer.
Where to plant silver birch
This versatile tree suits a wide range of locations: it's well-suited to growing in a border, in grass, in a woodland garden, in a line as a garden boundary or as single specimen trees in a hedgerow. It's also stylish enough to suit an urban garden, and may be planted in a group or row to create a specific effect. Silver birch grows in almost any soil apart from waterlogged ground, and, unlike many trees, thrives on poor soils.
How to plant silver birch
Autumn is the ideal time to plant silver birch trees because the soil is moist and still warm from summer, perfect for roots to establish before the growing season. Late winter to early spring is the next best time. While container grown trees can be planted at any time of year, regular watering is vital if planted from spring to early autumn.
Beware of planting too deeply which is death to silver birches. Dig a planting hole sufficiently wide for the roots to be spread out and plant with the top of the root ball just a little higher than the surrounding soil level. Backfill the soil around the roots, firm in well, water in, and mulch the soil surface with compost or chipped bark to improve moisture retention and discourage weed growth. Stake the tree with a short stake angled at 45 degrees and secure to the trunk using a tree tie.
How to care for silver birch
During the first full growing season, keep the tree watered during dry spells, watering thoroughly once every few days which encourages deep roots to develop. Keep the ground around the base clear of grass and weeds for at least a one-metre circle to avoid competition for water and nutrients.
Silver birch care is minimal after the first couple of years once the tree is established.
How to prune silver birch
Pruning silver birch should be done as little as possible as birch is liable to bleed sap, and the slow-healing wounds are a potential entry point for disease. Birch naturally develops an elegant shape so doesn't really need pruning, but if you need to do any essential work complete this in late summer or early autumn as the sap ‘bleeds’ less freely at this time of year.
Pests and diseases of silver birch
While leaf mining and sap sucking insects are attracted to birches, these are rarely an issue and indeed add to the wildlife value of these trees by attracting insect-eating birds.
Birches are susceptible to honey fungus, a disease that is potentially serious.
Advice on buying silver birchSilver birch trees are available in a range of sizes so it’s worth comparing sizes and prices from different suppliers. Note that silver birch is often sold as ‘hedging’. Although it's not a plant for creating a standard height hedge, as it’s not suitable for clipping and trimming, the term ‘hedging’ is often used to describe small silver birch saplings.
Where to buy silver birch tree online
Types of silver birch tree
Betula pendula subsp. pendula ‘Fastigiata’ is an upright narrow-growing form that often grows with a slightly spiralling habit and creates a columnar shape, which is useful where space is limited. Height x Spread: 5m x 2m
Commonly known as Swedish birch, Betula pendula subsp. pendula ‘Laciniata’ has deeply divided leaves. Also known as ‘Dalecarlica’. H x S: 20m x 6m
Weeping birch, Betula pendula subsp. pendula ‘Schneverdinger Goldbirke’ has yellow rather than green foliage. H x S: 6m x 4m
Betula pendula subsp. pendula ‘Spider Alley’ has contorted, corkscrew-like branches. H x S: 6m x 4m
Young’s weeping birch, Betula pendula subsp. pendula ‘Youngii’ forms a broad dome shape of weeping branches. H x S: 4m x 4m
Frequently asked questions
Help! My silver birch is too close to the house
Silver birches make great trees for small gardens as they have a shallow root system, so are unlikely to disturb house foundations. They also have a light, airy canopy, so don't block light. However, they can grow to around 30m in height, and you may be concerned about your tree's potential to topple in wind or damage any shallow drains. In smaller gardens, you could choose a more compact birch variety.
As a general rule, most trees should be planted at least 5m from a house. It's also important to consider the distance between trees and neighbouring buildings. However, there are many incidences of trees growing close to buildings that cause no problems at all. You are more likely to have problems if you are on clay soil, which dries and contracts in hot summers and can cause subsidence of nearby buildings. Adding a thirsty tree can exacerbate this problem. If in any doubt about where to plant a silver birch, consult an expert.
What should I underplant around my silver birch tree?
Silver birches are grown for their dramatic white, papery bark and so many gardeners don't underplant around the tree to make the most of its display. However, silver birches can look fantastic when surrounded by evergreen foliage plants such as ferns, shrubs with good winter colour such as dogwoods and witch hazels, grasses such as Stipa tenuissima and carex, and spring flowers such as primroses, daffodils, bugle and aquilegias. Classic combinations also include underplanting with snowdrops, cyclamen or Scilla sibirica – to create a carpet of late winter colour underneath the silver-white trunks of the birches. Bear in mind that birches are shallow-rooted, so don't site herbaceous plants too close to the roots where they will struggle.
Can I control the height of my birch tree?
Silver birches are elegant, airy trees. Some varieties can grow very tall but we advise that you don't 'top' the tree. Tree topping involves cutting the top of a tree off. This not only looks unsightly but results in weak, unstable growth, and can eventually be fatal to the tree. Instead, you can 'drop-crotch' the tree, which involves reducing its height while preserving its natural shape. It's best to get a professional tree surgeon to do this for you, as they will know which cuts to make for the benefit of both you and your tree.