Today, I’m featuring gardens that use birch trees to great effect. Flower lovers sometimes overlook trees, but if you can imagine these gardens without their chalky trunks, you’ll take away more than you might anticipate. Our eyes would hunger for them, were they absent.
As a pioneer species, birch was one of the first trees to return to Britain after the last ice age. England has two native species which hybridise readily: silver birch (Betula pendula) and downy birch (Betula pubescens). Scotland has a third, dwarf birch (Betula nana).
Young silver birch trees have brown bark. As the trees mature and the bark peels off, their boles gradually turn elegant shades of white, silver, gray and beige.
Birch trees offer all-season interest, so few of our classic winter gardens are without them. Their pale upright lines create a painterly, sketchy feel, adding what garden designers variously term structure, rhythm or punctuation.
After the trees leaf out in spring, their graceful, airy canopies allow other plants to thrive beneath. In woodland, this may mean English bluebells, grasses or wood anemones. The leaves briefly turn yellow in autumn before they fall.
Over time, dark bands and fissures appear on the trunk, including some that remind me of starbursts or aztec patterns. One of my favourite specimens (above, centre) grows on the edge of woodland and has bronze highlights that are beautifully accentuated by the setting sun.
Multi-stem and single stem plants are available that lend themselves to different styles of planting. The former add a naturalistic touch, while the latter often appear in geometrical groups.
Birch leaves are a curvy diamond shape that tapers to a point and have serrated edges. They are light and airy, flickering in wind and shimmering in sun.
The leaves, pale, satiny trunks and papery bark make birch relatively easy to identify. Downy birch leaves have hairy stalks; silver birch leaves do not.
Birch bark is also notable for its horizontal lines or ridges. The pictures above and below show a young and a mature Betula utilis var. jacquemontii.
Many types of birch trees are available to gardeners, including Betula nigra (Black birch, river birch), shown above. When young, the bark of selected river birch varieties naturally curls, revealing a cinnamon underside and patches of creamy trunk, giving the tree a fluffy texture.
The designers’ darling is Betula utilis var. jacquemontii and that is what has been used in many of the designs illustrated here. In particular, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Snow Queen’, also sold as ‘Doorenbos’, is valued as a less vigorous form of silver birch that develops white bark more quickly. I smiled to read this advertisement for it on trees online.co.uk:
“It will be fine in most soil conditions except those on the moon or underground caves… Tolerant of reasonably high wind conditions. Low flying cows in storm season is not suitable… Wet tolerant means TEMPORARY very wet ground. If the RNLI* build a launch ramp nearby, then you have serious drainage issues.”
* RNLI = Royal National Lifeboat Institution
Any white-bark tree can be used to similar effect.
While the trunks of silver birch are often very straight, they are not invariably so. The ones here seem to be loitering or socialising compared to their more orderly relatives.
The graceful habit of the birch has inspired its folk name, The Lady of the Woods.
Birch makes a great addition to wildlife-friendly gardens. It provides food and shelter for a wide range of insects and birds and is associated with lichens and fungi, such as the classic red, white spotted toadstools of fairytales (fly agaric) and chanterelle mushrooms.
Their calm, almost unearthly quality makes a copse of young birch trees atmospheric. Winter light is picked up and reflected by their trunks.
I often wonder how some of these classic, grouped designs will look 30, 60 or 100 years from now when the trees have matured and their boles have widened. Not like this!
Let’s hope a young photographer has determined to take a regular picture of a winter garden for the rest of their lives. A job for The Green Planet team, perhaps?
My pictures were taken in the following gardens in England, except where stated:
A and P – Bodnant Garden, Wales
B and C – Dorothy Clive Garden
D and F – The Wellbeing of Women Garden, Hampton Court Flower Show
E – Woodland
G – Cobble Hey Farm
H, I and O – RHS Harlow Carr
J – Trentham Gardens (Betula nigra)
K and R – RHS Bridgewater
L – Chatsworth House
M – Gresgarth Hall
N – Mandala Mindfulness Garden, Chatsworth Flower Show
Q – Tatton Park Flower Show
S and T – Dunham Massey (Betula utilis var jacquemontii ‘Doorenbos’)