December plant of the month

The beautiful bark of Himalayan birch lights up even the gloomiest winter day

birchCast your eye across the spartan December landscape of the  Harlow Carr woodland, and one group of trees shout for attention. The Himalayan birch, (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) with its tactile white bark stands out among the crowd of autumnal-toned plantings.

Planted extensively throughout the gardens, this birch is enchanting. True, the bark of Betula utilis is not as brilliant a white as that of our native silver birch,  Betula pendula, instead it has a warmer, creamier colour to its bark with salmon pink lenticels and there is much to recommend it through the year. The knobbly yellow-brown male catkins, to 12cm (5in) long, open in early spring and in summer it has handsome, ovate, glossy green leaves, turning yellow in autumn, each having a few widely spaced veins. 

Betula utilis is native to the Himalayas, where it can reach an impressive 35m (115ft), but in cultivation generally reaches no more than 18m (60ft). It is often planted in groups where multiple stems can best be appreciated. 

If you’d like a tree with a different bark colour then Betula utilis var. utilis has copper to chocolate tones. Alternately, Betula utilis var. albosinensis has dark orange copper-coloured bark, which naturally peels off in sheets as fine as tissue paper. 

These birches are fast growing, look great all year round, and provide instant impact. Many selections are relatively shallow-rooted and take up little space; groundcover and winter bulbs can be planted around the base of the tree too since the canopy allows sufficient light through to the ground below. All in all this is a great garden-worthy tree.

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