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)

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