Birch trees have a special sacred significance in this part of the world. They are I suppose to northern Europe (and Russia) what bamboo is to south-east Asia. Next door, Finland and Belorus have it as their national tree. For the Siberian tribes of Russia the birch tree is the forest girl: slender, smooth, prone to the occasional weeping; she improves the soil. Poland doesn’t appear to have a national tree but if she did it would probably be the silver birch (Betula pendula).

As a pioneer species, one of the most important functions which birch trees fulfil is that of improving the soil. They are deep-rooted, and their roots draw up nutrients into their branches and leaves, which the trees use for their growth. Some of these nutrients are returned to the surface of the soil each year when the leaves fall in the autumn, thereby becoming available for other organisms in the forest community. An indication of the scale and significance of this nutrient cycling can be drawn from the estimate that birch trees will produce between 3 and 4 tonnes of leaf litter per hectare per year.

All around Warsaw there are great (and small) swathes of birches. In Wierzbno (ironically, the place of the Willow) there is a small unassuming birch entranceway to a block of flats which is made all the more special by its almost perfunctory status. Next door, down at the Russian cemetery, there is a line of birches which runs all the way from Raclawicka Avenue to the southern edge of Pole Mokotowskie, over a kilomtre in length. The latter 370m tail of this, through the allotment garden complex, has been accorded protected status as an ‘aleja zabytkowa’ due to its eco-historico nature.

These trees, whether birch or other, irrespective of their individual age, manage to give Warsaw a sense of deeper time, connecting and rooting the city with a profound and primeval past from which modern Warsaw has emerged. Forests still play a huge part in the city accounting for 14% (7,260 hectares) of the surface area. Most notable of these are Las Bielanski, Rezerwat Morysin and Natolinski, and the Mazowiecki National Park. This 14% doesn’t include the periphery forests of Kampinos or Chojnowski, the respective northern and southern lungs, which are located on the city’s immediate outskirts.

Many foreigners speak of the pretty Polish girls. They are world renowned for their radiant and healthy beauty. But there is another Polish girl who is the silver birch and who is just as elegant, just as beautiful, just as healthy. There is also the added bonus that for 4 months of the year, she is almost completely naked.

A Silver Birch Grove in Powsin's Park Kultury.

(Top: A line of 20 silver birches in the Kashubian town of Swarzewo between Puck and Wladyslowowo)


Aleja Brzozowa (Alley of Birches) in the allotment gardens at the southern end of Pole Mokotowskie.

Despite having lived in this area for almost three years and wandered it through and through, I discovered this sanctuary only a few weeks ago secreted in between the Russian Cemetery Park and Pole Mokotowskie.

The allotments (Ogrodki dzialkowe) of Warsaw have a long and colourful history, and are one of the city’s more redeeming features. Almost 5% (1,700 hectares) of Warsaw's city surface is given over to allotments. The first ‘dzialki’ were set up before the war when the Polish Socialist Party put forwards an initiative to form ‘special workers’ oases of peace’. Where the likes of London gradually lost hers to property developers (inner city London was covered with them following WWII) Warsaw has retained hers most emphatically, governed by an allotment cooperative to protect and conserve them.

The district of Mokotow is particularly blessed with these green areas which teem with all manner of life be it animal, vegetable or mineral. During the Communist era, and as part of a remit to have people ‘grow their own’, most of the ‘dzialki’ were allocated to professional groups such as teachers, railway workers or miners. An allotment ‘parcel’ was a symbol of a certain status. More importantly, it was a gurantee of a regular food supply since buying certain foods at stores was not always possible. In effect, it was a form of collective and responsible living which is still vigorously continued to this day.

Sadly, most allotment gardens are closed to the public. However, there are certain gardens which have public throughways like this one. Personally, I have never found it a problem to gain entry to these places. With a little patience and a well-aimed smile (and some very bad Polish), you can be surprised at what you can gain access to!


Here in Mokotow, I am surrounded by chestnut trees. Just down the road along the long eastern edge of the avenues of Andrzej Boboli and Woloska there are more than a hundred mature horse chestnuts all standing to attention. The sight (and smell) is quite overpowering at any time of year but particularly in April when their candelabra gently explode outwards.

Down the main thoroughfare of Raclawicka, itself a haven for some glorious oaks, there’s even a couple of red chestnuts dotted about. But it’s the horse chestnut at the end of my skwer that garners my special affection. I salute it every morning as I bask under it like a house fly in the summer sun. It is a fine old beast of a tree, a sage if ever there was one, ideally situated next to a lime, with a bench and the trzepak underneath. The shade it casts in summer is marvellously refreshing.

In summer, on sun-filled mornings like today, the light appears to cascade through its splayed hand-like leaves making the leaves themselves appear almost translucent. The dance of light and shade within is quite a painting. Indeed, if anything were to convince me to take up a palette and brush it would be this - sitting under the chestnut tree.

Lazing in Lazienki, under the chestnuts.

'In Praise of Shade - Under the Chestnut and Lime'.