Countries all around the world have national trees, either officially pronounced by their governments or unofficially recognized by most citizens.
Usually, based on trees that grow naturally and prevalently within the country, national trees are often considered integral to a country’s heritage and identity as a nation, not to mention an important sign of patriotism.
As such, these specially designated trees often have some form of protected status and can be found adorning national emblems, planted around important historical or government buildings, and prevalent in cultural works.
When it comes to Russia, the national tree is the silver birch. Regarded across the Eurasian country as a symbol of both nature and beauty, the tree has a long, rich history in Russian culture.
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The silver birch tree has been regarded as Russia’s national tree since the days of the Czars and the Russian empire, which spanned from 1721 to 1917.
The tree has remained a prevalent and important part of Russian culture and national pride ever since, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Birch trees in general are some of the most commonly found trees in Russia, especially along the country’s central region.
Russia is home to many different types of birch trees, including the white birch, red birch, and karelian birch (a particularly dense subspecies of birch tree that only grows in northwestern Russia and produces large, tumor-like growths).
But it is the silver birch that is most esteemed above all.
As mentioned, the tree’s prevalence in Russian culture dates back for centuries, though its exact origins in popularity are shrouded in myth and folklore.
The tree’s sap has been used for hundreds of years for culinary and medicinal purposes, and its wood has been used to create furniture, toys, statues, and other works.
There is also birch tar, a kind of Russian oil that is taken from the tree’s bark for its waterproof and temperature-resistant qualities.
Historically, birch tar has been used as a glue, in medicines, and as a resin for bows and arrows.
The Russian word for the birch tree is “bereza,” which is derived from ancient Slavic languages. The word is believed to be related to the word, “berech,” a verb that translates to “to keep,” or “to care for.”
Russian folklore has it that the mighty birch trees could ward off evil forces and were a gift from God. Also a symbol of beauty, the silver birch tree is sometimes referred to as the “lady birch.”
The birch tree in general is the most popularly depicted tree in all of Russian art and popular culture. It has appeared in numerous works of art and cultural movements throughout the country’s history.
Some of the most noteworthy are as follows:
- The literature of Maxim Gorky and Sergei Yesenin, both Russian writers and poets who lived during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
- The Wonderful Birch, a Russian fairytale that is similar to Cinderella. Its exact origins are unknown, but it resurfaced in popularity in the late 1800s with Andrew Lang’s fairytale collection, The Lang’s Fairy Book.
- “Bereza” or “The Birch Tree,” a Russian folk song that has endured for centuries.
- “February Azure,” a painting by artist Igor Grabar, finished in 1904.
- The works of Marie de la Ville Bauge, a contemporary artist originally from France but living and working in Moscow. She is known for her love of Russian birch trees, particularly as depicted in one painting elaborately titled, “On the surface. This is a story of a man’s flesh and a tree’s bark.”
With the scientific name “Betula pendula,” the silver birch tree is a deciduous tree of medium size (reaching 49 to 82ft tall) that can be found in both Europe and Asia.
It has also been introduced to North America and Australia, though it is considered an invasive species in some areas.
In addition to the common “silver birch” name, the tree is also called the “European white birch,” the “warty birch,” and the “East Asian white birch.”
Like most other members of the deciduous tree family, the silver birch’s leaves change color and fall during autumn and early winter. In spring, birch trees grow new leaves and catkins, which are long, cylindrical stalks of tiny flowers.
As the name suggests, the tree is easily recognizable by its silver-white bark that appears almost shimmery in certain lights.
Interestingly, however, this bark does not start out silver. It instead first grows as a soft, golden-brown color that is similar to bark on other trees.
The top of the bark then flakes into a silver-white, papery-thin surface that eventually flakes off in regular cycles.
The silver birch tree is also characterized by its small, pointed leaves with toothed (serrated) edges and short stems.
They often grow on long twigs that sway easily in the wind and appear pendulous (hanging), and from afar the tree can look almost hairy.
Visitors to Russia will not have to look too long or too hard for silver birch tree sightings.
The silver birch tree can be found throughout Russia, with particularly dense populations spanning the nation’s central band from Europe through Asia.
The tree does well in more temperate climates with seasons that get very warm in summer and cool enough in winter for snow to fall.
The silver birch does not tolerate extreme heat or extreme cold well.
It’s worth noting, however, that silver birch trees are often planted as ornamental trees in small clusters, and so their contemporary populations are more inflated than they might be if left alone to nature.
This tree is frequently planted outside of government and historical buildings as part of its national symbolism.
Interestingly, Russian arborists and nature experts have been recording silver birch tree populations that have been “moving” or expanding to newer territories on their own.
Believed to be the result of climate change, the trees have been discovered at increasingly high altitudes on hills and mountainsides.
Russia isn’t the only country in the world that recognizes the silver birch as a national symbol. Finland also labels the silver birch its national tree, which it selected in a popular vote in 1988.
It’s also worth noting that Sweden‘s national tree is the Ornäs birch, which is a variety of silver birch noteworthy for its leaves with deep indents.