For as long as as I’ve recognised trees as different species, I’ve known there are two kinds of birch tree native to Scotland (not counting the tough little mountain birches). Silver birch is Betula pendula, Downy birch is Betula pubescens. The silver birch prefers drier ground, has jaggier leaves, more beautiful white bark and tends towards an elegant pendulous shape. The clue is in the scientific names as well as the English ones. Downy birch has hairier twigs, a more compact form, rounder leaves and tolerates wind and wet, so is more common in the north and west of Scotland and higher up the hills in the east.
I thought I had this all sorted out in my head years ago but it was brought home to me over the last week while making ‘Birch and oak’. These birch twigs were collected beside the road from Fowlis Wester to Buchanty, up on the moor by Murray’s Hill. It was a bitterly cold day. We walked down the road past the Buchanty Burn, to the fields where we saw black grouse last year. The wildlife was quiet this time, though what we did see was a treat. A stoat in pure white ermine fur-coat was hunting amongst the clearfell stumps near the road. It stopped a few times to watch us watching it, then went about its business, not in the least camouflaged. I’ve a clear memory of a pointed little face with brown fur on its nose, rounded white ears and an intense stare. And a black-tipped tail as it turned 180 degrees round itself and disappeared into the tree roots.
I cut the birch twigs from some saplings growing near a much older sessile oak and collected a few low-hanging oak twigs as well, with the intention of building them all into one basket. I wondered whether the lichen would stay on.
Every basket teaches me something new. This one transformed field-guide knowledge about birches into better understanding of differences between downy and silver. The twigs from Fowlis are matt-effect and soft, compared to the shiny-brown-with-warts twigs I used to make the Loch Tummel baskets in 2014. Those were definitely from silver birch. We untangled the fishing line from some very beautiful pendulous branches…
The Fowlis birch must be downy birch, or maybe a hybrid. I’ll go back for another look in the summer and photograph its leaves. It has a very sweet scent. Combined with beeswax-flower-meadow (on the linen thread) and aromatic-old-oak, the whole basket smells great!
For more info about birch trees: