Monday, 6 March 2017

The Dainty Lady

The Silver Birch, Betula pendula, often gets a mention in my ramblings and I offer no apology, for it is a beautiful tree. With its delicacy and grace it is probably one of the first trees that people generally learn to recognise. But, for all its grace it is, as I usually point out, as tough as they come. Its springtime growth is generally welcomed although perhaps there was a time when misbehaving children (and adults) were less than enthusiastic and in the 1607 play 'The Knight of the Burning Pestle 'by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, spring is celebrated with the lines:
                                        And now the birchen-tree doth bud; that makes the schoolboy cry.
I admit to having been birched at school, as were several of my school-mates, but we simply dared not shed a tear lest we be contemned.
Of course, despite the growth of birch trees, the arrival of spring was generally welcomed by boys, for the work goes on:
                                      The rumbling rivers now do warm, for little boys to paddle.
(Clearly, for Beaumont and Fletcher girls did not exist, at least not when the work was first performed.)
I seem to have gone off track a bit; where was I? Yes, birch trees.

In the Middle Ages the grace of the tree was surely appreciated, but it was valued for another reason, now almost forgotten. Our ancestors only had limited access to sweet substances and by spring any stores of honey would be almost exhausted. Where could they turn? From late March onwards birch trees offered a possibility, for their trunks could be tapped for its fragrant and rather sweet sap. There were two points to bear in mind: one, the sap rather rapidly went 'off' so it needed to be consumed quickly; the other thing to remember was that the cut made in the trunk needed to be sealed as soon as possible, using clay or something similar, or the tree would 'bleed' badly. Of course other trees could be tapped: Walnut, Juglans regia, Alder, Alnus glutinosa, Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus and, it seems, all Acers including Sycamore, Box Elder, Sugar Maple (obviously) and so on. Mind you, I have yet to meet anyone who has actually done this - and I certainly don't plan to. Willows may apparently be tapped but here a note of caution is required for the sap will contain significant amounts of salicylic acid, which in refined form is marketed as aspirin.
The deeply fissured bark of the Silver Birch. Daventry.
6 March, 2017
Sorry, I've veered off track again. Many birches are planted nowadays in parks and as street trees but probably the majority, despite having white bark, are not our native birches at all but are Himalayan Birches, Betula utilis var jacquemontii.
The smooth, much whiter bark of the Himalayan Birch.
Daventry, 6 March, 2017
Whereas our own birches generally develop a deeply fissured trunk these exotics have very white and much smoother bark (in some gardens the trunks are actually washed) which tends to peel off; for obvious reasons they are also referred to as silver birches.
The bark of Himalayan Birch tends to peel off.
Daventry, 7 March, 2017
Our native Silver Birch is also, as the specific name indicates, much more pendulous, giving it an overall much more pleasing shape. By and large the two species appear to attract similar insects but I have yet to see 'witches brooms' on a Himalayan Birch.

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