- 26 April 2012
I got a batch of Betula pendula, the silver birch, last year and once again , surprise, surprise, they turned out to be Betula pubsecens, which is the downey birch. It might seem to some nit picking on my behalf but there are significant differences between the two species as they mature.
The “true” silver birch is far superior as a landscape plant. It has better bark, foliage, and above all shape. It is sometimes called “lady of the woods” for its delicate outline and gracefully pendulous branches. Of course this pendulous habit does not occur on young vigorous trees, but only as they start to slow down with age – a bit similar to us humans!.
The problem is, if Betula pubescens is planted – as it often is in this country - mistakenly for Betula pendula - it’s often a bit late to do anything about it 20 years down the line.
It’s important to be able to identify the difference between the two, particularly as young plants.
Firstly the downy birch has downy twigs, this down is very short and fine and gives them a matt effect. The silver birch on the other hand has shinier twigs as it lacks the down covering, but the twigs are warty and rougher to the touch.
The leaves of the silver birch are almost triangular, as against the more rounded leaves of the downy birch.
When mature the down birch has a more rounded outline, its bark is duller, with horizontal black banding – on the silver birch this banding is replaced by diamond shaped markings.
Another give away is that the downy birch is invariably festooned with bird’s nest like “witches brooms”, even from quite a young age. But it has its uses. It’s a great quick growing tree for heavy wet soil.
However, if you order a greyhound from the pet shop and they send you a Labrador, the Lab may be a nice dog, but it’s not what you wanted, and it will win no races!