Plant of the month - a shining silver birch

So winter in the garden is boring, wet and grey, right? Wrong!

It would be easy to think that there is not much of horticultural interest in January, but there are plenty of plants out there that have the ability to liven up a dull winter's day and make a garden visit a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.

One of the most striking examples of this is Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, otherwise known as the West Himalayan silver birch. There are hundreds of different species and cultivated varieties of silver birch available in the garden centres for gardeners to choose from, but this is one of the most well-known and popular and there are several of them planted throughout the garden at RHS Hyde Hall.

The most mature specimen can be found in the Woodland Garden, a full-size tree that has reached at least 10 metres (32ft) in height, probably its full potential on our dry site. What makes this tree so striking is the bright white bark that has the ability to liven up and shine out even in the drabbest corners of the garden on a dark winter’s day. This provides ample opportunity for under-planting with contrasting winter interest, the colourful stems of winter Cornus (such as Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’), Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ and early-flowering daffodil varieties being classic examples.

Tricks of the trade

Although maybe a touch too big for the smallest of town gardens, it is a perfect tree for medium-sized gardens. In the summer months the canopy is light and airy, with the small leaves filtering the sunlight rather than casting dense shade. Birches also respond well to being grown as multi-stemmed trees (where four to six main branches are allowed to grow from ground level), a useful trick to limit their vigour, reduce the ultimate height & spread and maximise the amount of colourful bark closer to the ground.

They also make a fantastic specimen tree, planted singly in the lawn. This has been utilised in planting around the lake at Hyde Hall, where eventually the still winter water will reflect the beautiful shape and colour of these trees, doubling the impact.

What to do now

And if you are feeling particularly keen to get outside and do some gardening in the winter months; why not take a bucket and sponge to the trunks and clean off the green algae? This makes the bark shine crisper than a brand new white t-shirt, instantly giving the garden that much sought-after ‘show garden’ look.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.