Birches are hardy, resilient and adaptable trees and some have silk-sheened, pallid bark that sparkles in winter sunshine.
This contrasts brilliantly against the dark tracery of twiggy branches overhead and in winter these trees can look like finely chiselled charcoal sketches. The branches also cast a magic-lantern pattern of light and shade as the sun moves round.
However, most birches are shallow rooted and these surface roots can dry out the ground. For this reason, spring-flowering plants are more-suited as understorey plants because they can perform before dry conditions take hold.
Read our guide to planting a tree.
Choosing a birch tree
The classic Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) is variable. But there are excellent AGM varieties guaranteed to develop that desirable white bark. These include ‘Doorenbos’, ‘Jermyns’, ‘Silver Shadow’ and ‘Grayswood Ghost’.
Seek out these medium-sized trees from specialist tree nurseries and then add a carpet of vibrant spring-flowering plants to flatter their ghostly form. Choose either deep-pink Cyclamen coum, or dusky hybrid hellebores or purple crocus - keeping the planting simple.
Read our guide to planting under trees.
Other good birches with high-sheen bark include Ermans Birch (Betula ermanii) . The heart-shaped leaves are larger and they colour up to butter-yellow in autumn. The trunk is a pink-toned coppery cream and the finest form, ‘Grayswood Hill’, has thickly-textured foliage that’s a vibrant-green in summer (up to 30 ft, 5-10m).
The slightly darker, rougher toned Betula albosinensis is a vigorous faster-growing tree from Western China. It can reach 60ft (20m) and the warm-brown bark has a darker mahogany underside, this can be seen once the bark peels away. The best named form 'Septentrionalis', commonly known as the Chinese red-barked birch, has a grey-pink trunk, copper-pink branches and matt leaves.
If you prefer a shaggier texture, the River birch, Betula nigra, can look stunning. But this American species needs moisture in order to thrive, so it’s no good planting it on well-drained soil or in drier areas of the country. The bark of a mature tree flakes to reveal layers of cream, cinnamon and orange and the ragged edges catch the light and take on an attractive translucence. The diamond-shaped leaves turn bright-yellow in autumn. Those on heavy soil should do well with this.
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.
Bare-root or container
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.
- 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.
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.