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Choosing the best birch tree

Val Bourne / 26 October 2012 ( 26 March 2021 )

Gardening expert Val Bourne recommends the best types of birch trees and explains how to choose one for your garden, including silver birches, small birch trees and weeping birches.

Birch tree
Birch trees are popular garden trees due to their decorative trunks and dainty foliage that lets dappled sunlight through

Birches are hardy, resilient and adaptable trees and some have silk-sheened, pallid bark that sparkles in winter sunshine.

This pale bark 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 (Betula) 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 on to find out about the different types of birch trees available in the UK.

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Choosing a birch tree

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii Himalayan birch
Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii)

Himalayan birch

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.

Benefits: striking white bark, easily available

Read our guide to planting under trees

Betula ermanii Erman's Birch
Erman's birch (Betula ermanii)

Erman's birch

Another good birch tree with high-sheen white bark includes Erman's 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).

Benefits: striking white bark, yellow autumn foliage

Chinese red birch

The slightly darker, rougher toned Betula albosinensis (sometimes written Betula albo-sinesis) 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 matte leaves.

Benefits: fast growing, interesting red/bronze bark

River birch Betula nigra
River Birch (Betula nigra)

River birch

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.

Benefits: textured bark, good for heavy soil

River birch Betula nigra
Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

Silver birch

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.

Benefits: wildlife-friendly, easily available

Betula pubescens downy birch
Downy birch (Betula pubescens)

Downy birch

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

Single specimen

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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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.