With Christmas approaching why not treat yourself to your very own “Christmas” tree and what would make a better choice than a Birch – guaranteed to brighten any gloomy winters day. While a lot of the Birches can be too big for a lot of smaller gardens, some of the Himalayan birch verities are an ideal choice for a small space.
Birches are “pioneer” trees: often the first to emerge on clear-felled ground or to spring up robustly after a devastating fire. They are generally free of serious pests and diseases, content on dry or wet sites, on acid or alkaline soils. They are always graceful, kindly with their shade and steadfast in a gale. They bring all these attributes to a garden and stand equally well as a specimen on the front lawn or in close-planted groups, where just a few can suggest a modest copse.
That kindly shade, truly dappled, is perfect over areas where spring flowers are grown or where an under-storey of shade-loving shrubs and perennials is required. There are many named varieties of birch and, pleasingly, new ones continue to turn up in nurserymen’s lists. One that is tried and tested and beloved of gardeners, for formal and informal schemes alike, is Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, a medium-sized tree with chalk-white papery bark that peels in bands to reveal a new skin in warm shades of cream or pink buff, distinctively marked with horizontal dashes.
The 2in-long, toothed leaves of this Himalayan birch are dark green, with paler undersides that cause the tree to shimmer when stirred by a breeze. Buttery yellow in the autumn, some leaves turn toffee-coloured as they fall. Catkins abound in the spring. Some gardeners clean up birches by peeling away old bark to expose the new. Left alone, the dead bark crinkles and falls away in time, giving the tree a more rugged, less manicured, appearance.
Low branches can be removed, allowing for a 6ft or 8ft clear stand of white trunk that may eventually attain a girth of several feet. This method of cultivation makes space for a greater selection of other plants to be grown close by.
Himalayan Birches can make great feature trees within a lawn but can also be combined well in the border too. They look great underplanted with other spring flowering perennials like hellebores, brunnera and ferns. Add a bit of Sarcococca and Cornus Midwinter Fire to the scheme and you have a little bit of planting that will look good all year round. Don’t be scared of planting trees, they can be great additions to your garden and can actually make your space feel bigger as they lead your eye up towards the sky.