Thursday 20 June 2019

Downy birch: an ingredient in Byron's Gin

Downy birch
Image courtesy of J. Crellin/ Floral Images
Downy birch is one of the ingredients in Byron's Gin but it isn't the only species of birch which grows in Britain and Ireland. There are two widely-planted, alien species - Himalayan birch and paper-bark birch; there's dwarf birch, native and found mostly in northern Scotland; and there's the native silver birch, common across Britain and Ireland. Silver and downy birch can be separated based on leaf width and positioning of teeth using the Atkinson Discriminant Function - there was a paper about this in New Journal of Botany (available to BSBI members via our password-protected members-only area) and it's also explained on page 315 of Stace's New Flora of the British Isles 4th ed.

Birch sap, tapped from the trunk of the tree when the sap is rising in spring, is a traditional drink which has become fashionable again in recent years. It can either be drunk fresh or fermented into wine. Flora Celtica tells us that birch sap was long thought to help prevent baldness and Queen Victoria used to drink it to help prevent hair thinning. Birch also appears in C18th recipes as a flavouring for beer. 

Although it is one of the least durable timber species, birch has also been used for building furniture, making farm implements and even in house-building. It has been used in tanning, for charcoal, as besom brooms, for making arrows ad baskets, as a dye plant, as fuel in the distillation of whisky and for the smoking of herring and hams. Pieces of twisted birch bark were even used as candle substitutes in the Highlands in the C18th. 

We're not quite sure which part of the downy birch tree is used in Byron's Gin - bark, wood, sap - because the exact recipe is a closely-guarded secret. We do know that the gin tastes rather good and a contribution from every bottle sold goes towards BSBI's programme of training grants which help botanists sharpen their ID skills. Thank you, downy birch!

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