He calls it the “Most beautiful of forest trees – the Lady of the woods”. It is hard to disagree. There is a fragility to a birch tree. Not just in the flaking bark that cracks and peels like varnish on the weathered hull of a boat, but also the delicate branches that tremble in the softest of breezes.
On a dank winter day, the trunks shimmer through the mist like the stretched ghosts of old foresters. And even in summer, with the tree in full leaf, the trunk remains distinct. The leaves of a birch are small but vibrant, bright green emeralds glistening against grey. They still hold their colour in August, and remain sparse, allowing plenty of light to reach the forest floor. Here, smaller plants can find room for their own growth, though in late summer it is fungi with which the birch is often associated.
The silver and downy birch, which are both widespread, are well regarded by mycologists – especially those looking for an edible treat. The acidic soil in which they thrive provides good ground for some of our most iconic mushrooms. Ceps, orange birch boletes, chanterelles and fly agaric all flourish beneath the birch, especially when the tree is a dominant species within a mixed woodland.
As the leaves begin to brown and fall, finches fill the branches to feed upon the tiny winged seeds. There is little commercial value in the wood, but this is a tree long associated with fertility. In the Highlands, it was once believed that an unbearing cow could be made fecund if she was herded with a branch of birch.
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