Best birch trees for your garden
The bark of birch trees comes in many more colours and textures than you might think and has a haunting beauty. Horticulturist Christina Jones gives her recommendations.
The UK's native silver birch, Betula pendula is among the most frequently requested trees at nurseries. Why? It's a key woodland pioneer species but as a choice for our gardens, it’s really about the bark. That wonderfully tactile, peeling white bark.
Most nurserymen will go on to name the second most popular tree as Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, (see above) whose bark is the whitest of all in the Betula genus. But with more than 60 known species, and numerous cultivars now widely available, Betula is anything but a one-dimensional blonde.
Betula utilis var. jacquemontii
One of the whitest barked birches, this is, not surprisingly, one of the most popular. Planted en masse, it is difficult to beat for drama, however, a single multi-stemmed tree in a smaller garden can also look dramatic. 9-12m. USDA 4a-7b.
Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Grayswood Ghost’
This is one of the starkest whites of all the B. utilis var. jacquemontii cultivars. Forms a medium-sized tree and has very glossy leaves. 9-15m. AGM. USDA hardiness rating 4a-7b.
Also known as a paper birch or canoe birch, this is a very robust, fast-growing white-barked species. Provides rich, golden autumn colour. Has a spreading crown. 12-18m. USDA 4a-6b.
Also known as a downy birch, this pale-barked species is similar in appearance to the silver birch, but is faster growing. It’s also very tolerant of inhospitable growing conditions. 14-20m. USDA 2a-9b.
Betula utilis subsp. jacquemontii ‘Doorenbos’
A slender, fast-growing tree whose outstanding bark has orange-hued glints just below the pure-white, peeling surface. It forms a moderately spreading crown. 9-15m.
B. ermanii ‘Grayswood Hill’
A particularly lovely birch with peeling, creamy-white bark and elongated lenticels. Dark, glossy green leaves turn a good butter-yellow in autumn. Medium sized with a slender habit. 9-12m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 6a-9b.
Betula albosinensis ‘China Rose’
This Chinese red birch is an extremely elegant, very feminine, ginger-toned cultivar with dainty lenticel freckles and delicate foliage. With its lightly spreading crown, it’s a real show stopper. 9-15m. AGM.
Betula utilis ‘Forest Blush’
A rare and extremely handsome cultivar of B. utilis. The bark, which takes two to three years to fully develop, is a lovely pale colour with hints of warm orange and rosy red that appear to almost glow. 9-15m. AGM.
A good alternative to the stark whites, ermanii has freely peeling bark with creamy, pink-orange tones. Has a stately habit, long catkins in late spring and golden autumn leaf colour. Extremely hardy. 12-18m. AGM. USDA 6a-9b.
More like this
Betula papyrifera ‘Belle Vue’
This robust cultivar of B. papyrifera has a freely peeling bark that is more coarse and pink-brown in colour than the species. The golden yellow autumn foliage is long lasting and it has a lightly spreading crown. 12-18m.
North American species with rough texture and unexpected metallic sheen, particularly effective in winter sun. Slender and conical in shape, with good yellow autumn foliage. Also known as yellow birch. 9-15m. USDA 2a-9b.
A highly unusual tree with fabulous, rough textured flaking bark; a real eye-catcher. When young the bark is smoother, but develops with age. Has a medium-spreading crown and excellent autumn leaf colour. 12-18m.
Betula utilis ‘Nepalese Orange’
Cultivated by Stone Lane Gardens, this highly ornamental Himalayan birch has rich orange bark and prominent lenticels in horizontal bands. The smooth bark peels freely in sheets. Slender with a lightly spreading crown. 9-15m.
Less showy than its white cousins, but shares the same vigour. The papery, peeling bark has a ring-like pattern of lenticels. Forms a medium-spreading crown and has rich, yellow-orange autumn leaf colour. 12-18m.
Ideal for woodland or copse planting, producing trees in a myriad subtle shades of reddish orange, light brown, yellow and pink. Has a lightly spreading crown. 9-15m. USDA 3a-8b.
Betula utilis ‘Bhutan Sienna’
Cultivated for its superb, smooth, reddish-brown bark, slender growth and lightly spreading crown, this Himalayan birch is especially captivating when the scrolls of bark are illuminated by low winter sun. 9-15m.
Betula utilis ‘Sichuan Red’
A highly ornamental cultivar with polished mahogany bark and slender growth habit. Looks magnificent when the peeling translucent scrolls of bark are illuminated by the low winter sun. 9-15m.
Betula utilis ‘Mount Luoji’
The rich, glossy, dark chocolate-brown bark peels freely into spectacular, fine sheets of copper orange. Medium-sized and slender, with a lightly spreading crown, this tree is ideal for broadscale, naturalistic plantings. 9-15m.
Betula ermanii ‘Mount Zao’
A striking cultivar selected at Stone Lane Gardens with dark-purple and orange peeling bark and prominent bands of lenticels. Has an extensive spreading crown and mid-green leaves that turn dark yellow in autumn. 12-18m.
Betula utilis ‘Park Wood’
With arguably the darkest bark of all, this Himalayan birch looks as if it’s sculpted from smooth, dark chocolate. Bands of fine, white lenticels contrast beautifully. Forms a medium-sized tree, with a light canopy. 9-12m. AGM.
Betula albosinensis ‘Bowling Green’
This unusual Chinese birch has glossy, dark honey-coloured bark that peels off in spectacular long strips. Easy, hardy and fast-growing, it forms a medium-sized tree. 25m.
How to grow
Birches are generally exceptionally hardy and relatively easy to grow in sun to light dappled shade, on most soils, dry or damp. B. alleghaniensis, B. dahurica and B. nigra are excellent choices for damp (but not waterlogged) soils, but site away from frost pockets and provide shelter from cold winds.
B. papyrifera and B. pubescens are notably vigorous and robust, performing well on inhospitable sites. Planting in full sun may encourage production of betulin (the chalky white ‘bloom’ that gives birch barks its unique appearance), though this is speculative. Cultivars valued for their bark colour can be gently pressure-washed to remove algae and lichen.
B. albosinensis and its cultivars, although ultimately sizable trees, are slow growing enough to be treated as small-to-medium sized trees for most practical purposes.
Many of the characteristics of birch don’t show themselves in saplings, so you need to be very careful when choosing your tree. If you’re looking for precise, true-to-type features, then it is best to select from mature trees that already show that trait. However, if your budget doesn’t stretch to a mature tree, or if you’re looking for a rare cultivar, which may only be available as a sapling, then you need to buy from a reputable nurseryman and confirm the trees were propagated from cuttings (which will ensure they are genetically identical to the mother tree).
For broadscale planting of woodlands, buying saplings in bulk is likely to be the most practical option. Approach a reputable grower and enquire about propagation history, bearing in mind that in this case trees with a degree of genetic variation may be preferable, as they will give more natural graduations in tone.
You should, however, be aware that every tree will develop its own unique character over time, influenced by many factors. This is especially true of birches; it is part of their charm and should be embraced.
If you are buying specimen trees, remember price depends not just on size but also on the way in which the root system is supplied. Expect to see the following options (listed by increasing quality and value): bare root (soil shaken from roots when harvested), rootball (supplied with soil around roots), plastic-container grown, bagged (grown, or stabilised in bags for at least four months) or grown in Air-Pots (containers designed to promote fibrous roots). Your budget will no doubt guide your choice.
Birches lend themselves well to cultivation as both standards (single-stem specimens) and multi-stem, with different forms conveying distinctive moods in a planting scheme.