Bring an attractive component of Scandinavian forests into your landscape by planting a silver birch tree (Betula pendula), also called the European white birch. Appreciating a fertile, moist soil rich in organic matter, it quickly grows into a shade or singular specimen tree in the lawn or mixed garden border. Grow it throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture winter hardness zones 2 through 7. It does not tolerate drought conditions.
Silver birch is native to much of Europe, and its natural range extends eastward to western Siberia and into Asia Minor. It is considered a pioneer forest tree, being among the first to sprout and provide shade in sunny clearings, growing quickly but typically only living 60 to 90 years before dying, according to Trees for Life.
Growing in the typical range of 60 to 70 feet tall, some silver birch trees attain mature heights of 95 feet when growing in competition for light in a densely wooded forest. Its shape is upright and somewhat narrow and pyramid-like, with drooping branches covered in warty branchlets and peeling white bark that becomes ruggedly cracked. The green leaves are rounded diamonds with jagged teeth and turn bright yellow in autumn before dropping. In spring as these leaves first emerge, drooping male flowers called catkins shed pollen into the wind and pollinate the nearby drooping female catkins. The female flowers turn into nutlets that shed hundreds of tiny seeds in early autumn, which are dispersed in the wind. Large silver birch trees can produce up to one million seeds each year, according to Trees for Life.
Humans have selected natural variations of silver birch and used them in gardens to enjoy their ornamental beauty. The natural variety Purpurea bears leaves with red-purple hues; gardeners then selected mutations of this variety to yield selections named "Purple Rain," "Purple Splendor" and "Scarlet Glory." A yellow-leaf cultivar is named "Golden Cloud." Upright, narrow tree types include "Obelisk" and "Fastigiata." Deeply cut, almost feathery leaves develop on cultivars "Laciniata" and "Dalecarlica," while irregular, exceptionally weeping canopies form on "Youngii" and "Tristis." A dwarf variety that grows barely chest-high when old is "Trost's Dwarf."
Trees for Life mentions that silver birch trees often grow in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship with fungi in soil. The fungi helps to hasten the breakdown of old, dead wood to release nutrients for the tree to absorb. Moreover, the fast growth of the silver birch sends down roots into layers of the soil other woodland plants rarely reach, pulling nutrients up into the foliage. As the leaves drop each fall and then decay, these nutrients are made available to any plant growing on the soil surface.
Overall, silver birch trees grow most healthfully and beautifully in regions with cool summers. Too much summertime heat coupled with warm or dry soils cause stress and likely discoloration or premature dropping of leaves. This species and all its varieties, especially the purple-foliage ones, remain susceptible to considerable damage from bronze birch borer insects. Winter's heavy wet snows and ice storms also tend to decimate the branches.