For me, the Silver Birch (Betula pendula) is easy to recognise (in winter or in leaf) for its slender and feminine form, its delicate leaves, branches and twigs all radiating from the silver trunk. However, its frame belies its hardy disposition being a native of Iceland, Greenland and of course, Britain. The birch is relatively short-lived, usually about 100 years, except in Highland Scotland, and relatively short in stature, reaching around thirty metres in this country. Silver birches have shallow root systems and prefer light and moist soils. Underneath its canopy, the ground is lush, due to the tree’s affinity to water, welcoming a wide range of flowers and funghi.
As I became more interested in the life of a silver birch, I came across Peter Wohlleben’s book entitled The Hidden Life of Trees (Wohlleben 2017). It turned out to be a fascinating read, inspired by Wohlleben’s career as a forester, and informed by scientific research at institutions such as the University of Turin. We learn about the social life of trees, the ‘language’ of trees (using scent as a means of communicating) and the ways in which they ensure the next generation.
Wohlleben classifies the Silver Birch in a group he calls Pioneer Tree species. These are trees who do not favour staying close to their family groups, equipped with seeds that are light and shaped accordingly, to travel long distances in search of sunny spots. This type of tree is quick to establish and grow but trees, such as the silver birch, are not the only species in search of sunny, open spaces and animals such as deer can be problematic.
Pioneer trees however have built-in defence mechanisms. In the case of the silver birch, a thick layer of outer bark which is saturated with oil which animals find distasteful. The silver colour of the bark is due to betulin which reflects the sunlight and protects the slender trunk from sunscald. The tree also has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. These natural defences, “defensive armouring” as Wohlleben refers to them, are produced quickly in order to support the fast-growing tree from predators and natural dangers. This is characteristic of trees that seek open spaces whereas others prefer to stay in family groups in woodland settings that provide support to other trees in the forest.
The defensive way of life of a silver birch is a huge drain on its resources and thus it is short-lived and can suffer burnout. The trees become susceptible to funghi when any broken branches occur, and more fragile and vulnerable to storm damage.
Appreciating all of this has changed the way that I think about them photographically. Being a silver birch tends to be a lonely life – even in groups each has a sense of isolation. Whereas with other tree species, such as beech and oak, they always stand in relation to one another, taking their shape and aspect from the woodland around them. Being aware of what is distinctive about each species helps guide me in the way that I seek to capture the essence of their being.
Johnson O and More David. (2004). Collins Trees Guide. London, William Collins.
Wohlleben, P. (2017). The Hidden Life of Trees. London, William Collins.