There are two British native varieties of birch tree. The classic silver birch, Betula pendula, is native throughout Europe. Garden forms are available, including 'Purpurea' (purple birch) with dark purple leaves, weeping varieties such as 'Youngii' (Young's weeping birch) and 'Dark Prince' and the narrow upright 'Fastigiata' (pyramid birch) which is suited to smaller gardens.
A native silver birch is a good choice for a wildlife garden as the tree supports over 300 species of insects, including buff tip moths and angle shades moths. The seeds are eaten by birds such as greenfinches and siskins.
Downy birch (Betula pubescens)
The second British native is downy birch, Betula pubescens. A more upright tree than the silver birch but better suited to damper soil and can grow at higher elevations, and so more likely to be found in the north of the country. New shoots on downy birch feel hairy to the touch. As with the silver birch, a downy birch will attract wildlife to the garden.
Benefits: wildlife-friendly, good for damp soil
Training a young birch tree
Birches can be planted as single stemmed trees and left unpruned to develop a single main leader before developing into a slender, upright trees.
A young tree can be trained into a multi-stemmed specimen if the main leader is pruned out. This will result in several smaller trunks and the resulting tree will be roughly a third shorter. Ready-trained specimens can be bought and generally the trunks look as though they have been arranged in a vase. It’s a very natural shape and ideal for a smaller garden that only has room for one tree.
Another technique is to plant three young trees in the same hole to create a fused shape of three narrow trunks. These seem to move away from each other as they develop and the trunks can look stunning in winter light.
Small birch trees for containers and small gardens
Birch trees come in a variety of shapes and styles, and it's even possible to grow them in large containers. Silver birch and Himalayan birch are both available as columnar 'Fastigiata' varieties, which have a much smaller spread than other birch trees and are ideal for smaller gardens.
A multi-stemmed variety will create an impact and are well-suited to small gardens without room for multiple trees, while a weeping variety with have the spread without the height.
Mountain birch (Betula nana) is a slow growing dwarf birch usually found in the tundra, but it is not common or easily available for gardens. It has copper stems and a shrub-like appearance.
If growing in a container you will need to make sure the soil doesn't dry out and keep it fed.
Bare-root or container trees?
You can plant young bare-root trees when they are dormant, between November and February, as long as the ground is frost-free. Container-grown plants can be planted throughout the year except in extreme weather - ie when it’s very cold or very hot. Spring and early autumn are ideal.
- Prepare the ground well and dig in some bone meal.
- Water well in the first growing season
- All new trees should be staked with a tree tie when they are planted.
Read our guide to planting a tree
Add some more sparkle
Give your ornamental birches an annual wash with a soft brush or sponge. Use clean, slightly warm water to remove dirt and algae from the trunk in autumn. Do it again in spring if needed.
A year in the life of a silver birch tree, from The Woodland Trust.
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