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Tree 14: Downy Birch

Latin name: Betula pubescens
Family: Betulaceae
Other names: Europe
Height: up to 30metres
Lifespan: up to 150 years but usually 60-90 years
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

The Downy Beech is the lesser known of the British native birches, differing from the Silver Birch in several respects. It has fine twigs/shoots with short, white hairs that are also evident on the leaf stalks and, whilst there are also some veins beneath the leaf, the tiny white warts seen on Silver Birch twigs are absent. The leaf outline tends to be more oval, without a narrowed apex, and with a single row of teeth of uniform size. The outer branches are not ‘weeping’ ; the trunk is off-white with tinges of brown lasting into maturity but without the clear black diamond-shapes seen in Silver Birch. It has a fairly smooth bark that extends right to ground level ( mature Silver Birch have chunkyg rey ridges of bark near the ground ).

Pollen and seeds are transported on the wind with a tiny ‘nut’ 2 X 1 mm bearing a pair of lateral wings. Relative to the size of the ‘nut’ the wing is seen ( with a good lens ) to be larger in the Silver than the Downy fruit. Both species, especially the Downy, tolerate poor quality soils, and the Downy is able to thrive at higher altitudes and in more damp ground. Both trees are common throughout England but Downy Birch predominates in Northern Britain and in the northern uplands of the Peak District.

Birch timber is heavy and tough and has had many uses, especially in hilly country with few other trees. It has been particularly useful as a building material and in furniture making and in earlier times it was well known for making bobbins, spindles and shuttles for the Lancashire textile industry.

Sap collected from the trunk was believed to have “laxative and skin-cleansing properties” and it was also made into wine “to benefit kidney and bladder functions”. Twigs furnished brooms, baskets, birch ropes and THE birch for “ betynge of stubborn boys” ( Turner’s Herbal 1561 ). Branches were also used to protect churches, homes etc. against evil influences. Betulin from the bark protects leather from fungal damage, and is being investigated for possible anti-cancer activity.