Using Birch in the Garden for Light, Rhythm and Texture

Birch and witch hazel in Bodnant's winter garden

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.

Foxgloves growing under a birch tree with flaky bark

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).

Birch and foxgloves at Dorothy Clive garden

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.

The Wellbeing of Women Garden, Hampton Court Flower Show

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-stemmed birch with white foxgloves

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.

Island bed with birch trees infant of a moon gate

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.

A young Betula utilis var. jacquemontii

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.

A well-established Betula utilis var. jacquemontii
Black birch at Trentham Gardens

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.

Birch in a winter border at RHS Bridgewater

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

“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

Tree and stump art at Chatsworth House

Any white-bark tree can be used to similar effect.

Birch grove at Gresgarth Hall

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.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii (multi-stemmed silver birch) in a circle of pine cones
Birch trees with flowering heather at Harlow Carr
Bodnant's winter garden

The graceful habit of the birch has inspired its folk name, The Lady of the Woods.

Birch logs edging a stumpery

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.

Birch trees in woodland at RHS Bridgewater
Betula utilis var jacquemontii 'Doorenbos' at Dunham Massey

Their calm, almost unearthly quality makes a copse of young birch trees atmospheric. Winter light is picked up and reflected by their trunks.

Betula utilis var jacquemontii 'Doorenbos' with snowdrops

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’)

42 Replies to “Using Birch in the Garden for Light, Rhythm and Texture”

  1. I love birch but birches aren’t grown in gardens here in Michigan because they became short-lived because a disease weakened them – if I remember right. It was many years ago but I don’t remember seeing them in nurseries in resent years. I still see them when we travel in the northern regions of the state.

    1. I also heard from two sources over the past couple of years that the bark makes wonderfully soft toilet tissue if needed when in the woods. Don’t have any personal experience with it but it is very soft.

    2. We have seen how science and regulations can address human pandemics, but I wish we tried harder to limit the spread of tree diseases. Dutch Elm Disease killed 25 million UK trees in a decade; now it is the turn of the ash, and oak is not safe either.

  2. A lovely post – informative post which I enjoyed reading. Yes, they’re delightful trees, and probably among the easiest to identify too.

    1. I have been looking for a really good book on British trees with pictures that allow identification all year round. I know there’s an app, and perhaps that’s what I need.

  3. I love using paper bark birch (B. papyrifera) here in the US and river birch, both of which do tolerate wetter soils. They add such beauty to the landscape. I love the combination of birch, red-twig dogwood and winterberry against an evergreen background, a winter treat for the eye.

    1. That does sound like a great combination. I remember when I first saw a planting of river birch how exciting it seemed. I loved the way it could be underplanted. It was in the middle of a huge garden, out in the open, but with a special atmosphere of its own.

  4. Wonderful post! Thank you for all the info on birch. Love the photos, you and birch playing with the light! I’ve always loved birch though I’ve never lived where they grow as natives. Here in the US Pacific NW we have red alder which remind me of birch, and sometimes can be just as white. They are related.

    1. Apparently birch and alder were only split off from each other in the late 1700s. I checked out the red ones online – they do have attractive bark. Our native alder is the black one (Alnus glutinosa).

  5. You are so right about how we would miss their absence and you’ve shown off their light, rhythm and texture very nicely. I’ve always been attracted to birches, cheering for them to stand up when seeing them weighted down by snow when I lived in New England.

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