Bark life: A single tree or a small grove... the birch adds a silver lining to your plot
Its grey trunk marked by rugged black cracks, the silver birch is a common sight in woodland and parks – but there are many closely related varieties that are prized for their striking, ornamental bark.
Visitors to The Savill Garden and nearby Valley Gardens in Surrey are often amazed to see so many trees with brightly coloured, textured or patterned trunks belonging to the same family as our native birch.
‘They’re a very diverse group of plants and many have lovely bark that helps cheer up the garden in winter,’ says Mark Flanagan, 51, who looks after both the gardens, set within Windsor Great Park.
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Now is the perfect time to visit a garden famed for its collection of betulas – the botanical name for birch – as the stems of these deciduous trees can be admired without distraction from their foliage. Pick your favourites – then snap up bareroot or container-grown specimens for planting in your own space.
Nowhere is better for inspiration than the two gardens, owned by The Crown Estate and dubbed The Royal Landscape.
About 60 different birches are dotted across 155 acres, including two National Plant Collections – Himalayan birches and Chinese red birches In the 35-acre Savill Garden, birches are grown mainly in island beds underplanted with other winter-interest plants.
By the entrance, a light brown stemmed Betula utilis ‘Wakehurst Place Chocolate’ with pretty peeling bark rises above a carpet of yellow-leaved grass, while a few feet away the gleaming white stems of five Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Doorenbos’ contrast perfectly with a swathe of red-stemmed dogwood.
Mark says many other whitestemmed birches are worth growing, including Betula ermanii ‘Grayswood Hill’, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Silver Shadow’ and B. utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Grayswood Ghost’, whose white trunk is emblazoned with raised horizontal stripes.
‘My favourite is probably ‘‘Inverleith’’ due to its exceptionally bright, snowy-white peeling bark,’ he says.
Both of the Royal gardens Mark oversees were created by Sir Eric Savill, a horticulturist and deputy surveyor of Windsor Great Park.
Savill Garden was started in 1932 for King George V and Queen Mary, while the larger Valley Gardens began to take shape after the Second World War, occupying an undulating site running down to Virginia Water.
Closer to home: The Savill Garden, and Valley Gardens in Windsor's Great Park has 60 varieties of birch trees
The heavily wooded Valley Gardens, with fine views across to Fort
Belvedere, former home of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, have many
varieties of birch in an area known as Birch Lawn.
Betula nigra, or river birch, has reddish-brown bark that peels off in layers to give the trunk a shaggy appearance, while Betula szechuanica boasts chalky-white bark with dark stripes.
Elsewhere, Betula albosinensis ‘Bowling Green’ has brown bark that peels away naturally to reveal a pinkish trunk.
Most of the birches here are readily available – but gardeners will have to wait to get their hands on one eye-catching variety that has yet to be named.
Showing me a gorgeous birch with a shiny, mahogany-coloured trunk and flaky orange bark, Mark explains: ‘We’ve grown it from seed collected wild in China and are in the process of propagating it.’
He says birches are best grown as single specimens in a lawn. For greater impact, you could plant several a few feet apart to create a small grove.
Alternatively, grow them in a border with other plants that look good in winter, such as hellebores, cornus, witch hazel, golden carex, black dragon grass and early-flowering bulbs.
Looking after birches is easy. Trim dead or damaged growth, along with any smaller lower branches, in autumn to leave a distinctive, clean trunk. Remove side branches while plants are young as the wound will heal quickly and be inconspicuous.
‘The white-stemmed varieties look best if they’re cleaned occasionally,’ says Mark. ‘Use a soft brush and warm water to give them a scrub in autumn or, if you have several, clean them quickly with a pressure-washer.’
lThe Savill Garden is open daily 10am-4.30pm until February 28, tickets £6 (10am-6pm from March 1, tickets £8.50). The Valley Gardens are open daily from dawn to dusk, entry free. For more details go to www.theroyallandscape.co.uk.
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