Birch (Silver birch; Downy birch)


Latin name: Betula pendula; Betula pubescens

Gaelic name: Beith

Size: Up to 30m tall

Where: Inchcailloch; woodlands and lower mountain slopes around the Park

When: All year round; early spring and autumn for rich colours

The birches’ graceful lines and dainty leaves belie their tough characters. They will grow in places where no other trees can survive.You will see their seedlings sprouting on mountains, heathland, even on bogs, making them the most common native trees in Scotland.

Most people recognise the silver birch – the pearly-white sheen on its peeling, papery bark is unmistakeable. Its small, triangular leaves flutter in the breeze, giving the tree its delicate demeanour. Downy birch is a close relation that often takes over from silver birch in wetter, more western parts of Scotland. It looks very similar, but its bark is less striking, and its leaves more elongated. It gets its name from the soft, hairy stalks and veins on its leaves.

In early spring it is the birch that gives our Scottish woodlands their purple glow, as the fresh twigs and buds emerge. In the past its spring growth was used to predict the weather for the coming summer: if a birch leaf was the size of a ‘mouse’s lug’ by Beltane (1 May) people believed there would be a good harvest to come.

Birches provide food and homes for hundreds of species – mostly invertebrates – 334 at the last count. One of the most important is the argent and sable moth, which lays its eggs on the leaves of the tiny saplings. Birch woods, which cast such light shadows on the woodland floor, are often great places to see spring flowers such as primroses, violets and bluebells, which thrive in the sunny conditions.

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Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods