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Sara’s Nature Blog

Sara Mclean, our Forest Access Coordinator, works with volunteers to carry out a host of activities, from collecting tree seeds to improving wildlife habitats to uncovering the forest’s heritage. In this blog she’ll be giving regular updates about the forest’s plants and wildlife.
20th October 2015
Gathering birch seed
Gathering birch seed
An October ramble through Kilfinan Community Forest took me up to the new ponds to look for downy birch seed. The Kew Gardens Millenium Seed Bank Project has a target list of native species they would like us to collect seed from, and earlier in the year we had a recce to see which species we could find in the forest.

Birch, or Betula, are plentiful up here. But there are two Betula species on the list – Betula pendula (silver birch) and Betula pubescens (downy birch). Learning the Latin names for plants can be so useful as the same descriptive terms are used across the plant world. We had a laugh during the Youth Skills Development project about the birch names this summer – as you can imagine!

Identifying the two birch species is far from easy, especially when you know that many individual trees are hybrids between the two. I decided to hone my skills and share the science...

B. pendula has smooth leaf stalks and hairless, warty shoots, more diamond-shaped leaves with double serration on the margins (more ovoid and with single serrations in downy birch). I tend to think the leaves appear smaller, darker and glossier than downy birch too, and it has whiter bark, often with scattered black fissures. Older branches tend to droop gracefully.

The ‘weeping’ birch B. pendula youngii found in gardens is a deliberate hybrid with obvious weeping branches, and is not the naturally occurring silver birch we are looking for.

B. pubescens can be distinguished from silver birch in having downy shoots and leaf stalks, and the leaves are more heart-shaped. The leaf margins also differ, finely serrated in downy birch, coarsely double-toothed in silver birch. Trees are more upright than silver birches and the bark is more brown in colour, or a dull greyish white, with more obvious horizontal grooves, lacking the papery quality of the silver birch.

It is also distinguished cytologically, silver birch being diploid (with two sets of chromosomes), whereas downy birch is tetraploid (four sets of chromosomes) Having said all that (told you it was scientific!) we discovered that some trees appear to have both leaf-shapes across the canopy and you have to stand back and check the whole tree, not just the nearest leaves!

Since we have no way of testing the chromosomes, we need to send in a herbarium specimen for each tree to Kew, along with the collected seed, and they will check which is which.

The birch seeds, and seed from some of the other species on our list are getting close to being ripe – at the point of natural dispersal. Why not come along and help us to gather our collections? The more the merrier, and what better way to spend time in the community forest, getting up close and personal with the trees?

If you’d like to get involved, just contact me on 01700 811159 or at We’ll be organizing a holly seed collection nearer Christmas.

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