Birch, downy (Betula pubescens)

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Downy birch is a deciduous broadleaf tree native to the UK and northern Europe and northern Asia.

Common name: downy birch, moor birch, white birch, common white birch, European white birch

Scientific name: Betula pubescens
Family: Betulaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: downy birch is found on damper soils than silver birch, and can even tolerate waterlogged or peaty conditions. Its range is more northerly and western than silver birch, and it can grow at higher elevations.

What does downy birch look like?

Overview: mature trees can reach 30m in height, forming a light canopy with elegant, drooping branches. Trees are more upright than silver birches and the bark is more brown in colour with more obvious horizontal grooves, lacking the papery quality of the silver birch.

Leaves: triangular in shape but more rounded at the base than silver birch leaves. Leaf stalks are downy, as opposed to hairless on silver birch. 

Flowers: downy birch is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers (catkins) are found on the same tree, from April to May. Male catkins are long and yellow-brown in colour, and hang in groups of two to four at the tips of shoots, like lambs' tails. Female catkins are smaller, short, bright green and erect.

Fruits: after successful pollination (by wind), female catkins thicken and change colour to a dark crimson. Masses of tiny seeds are borne in autumn, which are dispersed by wind. 

Look out for: bark is grey-white and leaves are triangular shaped.

Could be confused with: silver birch (Betula pendula) and the two easily hybridise. Silver birch has hairless and warty shoots whereas downy birch shoots are covered in small downy hairs.

Identified in winter by: bark is white all year round and twigs are softly hairy to the touch.

Where to find downy birch

Found throughout Europe downy birch grows more commonly  in wet soil such as peat bogs and clay than silver birch.

Value to wildlife

Birch woods (which may include downy or silver birch, or both) have a light, open canopy, providing the perfect conditions for grasses, mosses, wood anemone, bluebells, wood sorrel and violets to grow.

Downy birch provides food and habitat for more than 300 insect species - the leaves attract aphids, providing food for ladybirds and other species further up the food chain, and are also a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the angle-shades, buff tip, pebble hook-tip, and Kentish glory. Birch trees are particularly associated with specific fungi including fly agaric, woolly milk cap, birch milk cap, birch brittlegill, birch knight, chanterelle and the birch polypore (razor strop).

Woodpeckers and other hole-nesting birds often nest in the trunk, while the seeds are eaten by siskins, greenfinches and redpolls.

Mythology and symbolism

In early Celtic mythology, the birch symbolised renewal and purification. Bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year, and gardeners still use the birch besom, or broom, to 'purify' their gardens. It is also used as a symbol of love and fertility. In Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, and a pregnant cow would bear a healthy calf.

How we use birch

Birch wood is tough and heavy, making it suitable for making furniture, handles and toys. It was used to make bobbins, spools and reels for the Lancashire cotton industry. The bark is used for tanning leather.

Threats

Planted birch appears to be susceptible to birch dieback, which is caused by two fungal pathogens, Marssonina betulae and Anisogramma virgultorum. Naturally regenerated birch (grown naturally from seed) appears to be less prone to this disease.

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