Peter Dowdall discusses the importance of focal points in the garden and selects the silver birch as best.
EVERY garden should have a focal point — and most gardens have several features, little areas of interest with their own special flavour. Anything really, can be that statement piece, a sundial or birdbath, or even a water feature — but especially, trees.
Trees make the most commanding features of all in the garden and there is always a species for a particular area. From the intricate, delicate Japanese maples which can define the smallest of rockeries or Japanese garden, right up to a mature oak or beech in the centre of a big old estate garden.
Each species brings something different to the garden, be it the softness and lacework detail of the maples or the sheer grandeur and majesty of the oak. But there is one tree for me, that more than any of the others, offers so much year round focus in the garden. What is it about the Silver birch that makes it so special?
I first fell in love with birch when I lived in the UK. Growing up in Ireland it wasn’t a tree that you would see that often, particularly not in the wild on hedgerows or ditches.
Take a drive through the southern counties of England and you will pass thousands of them; they really define the English countryside.
In latter years, more and more of the species have been planted in Ireland, in particular the Himalayan silver birch, Betula x utilis var Jacquemontii. One of the best of all the varieties for a silver stem, Jacquemontii offers something to every garden, for each week of the year.
At its best right now, the white of its bark can seem like a beacon when lit up by a low winter sun. Dripping with catkins, the seed heads are loved by finches and several other bird species and it’s not just our feathered friends that are supported by the birch, the larvae of many types of butterfly, along with 500 species of insects, can feed and nest in a birch tree.
The branches are also often tied together and used as a broom, and the shape is familiar as the Halloween witches’ broom found in shops in October. Made from the common European silver birch, Betula pendula, this tree can be attached by a fungal infection, Taphrina betulina, which causes a mass of stems to grow in a cluster on the tree, referred to as the ‘witches’ broom fungus’.
Just as we have Christmas trees as symbols, in Sweden at Easter, the birch tree is decorated with ribbons and small eggs. In many villages of the Rhineland, in Germany, the tradition is for males to cut birch trees, decorate them with colourful ribbons and position them in the garden of their desired lady.
It’s not that these traditions make the Silver birch worth its place in my garden, rather, it is the birch’s dramatic aesthetic qualities.
The silver birch works in almost any situation, whether as a solitary specimen commanding a border or lawn area, or in a cluster or copse on their own, where the dramatic white stems create an eerie silver stand.
Like all deciduous trees, the birch brims with new life in spring and at bud burst, the new leaves push forth in the freshest of pale green.
These develop into a more dark, dull green during the summer, softening the silver bark and stems, but then, as if the tree wasn’t bringing enough to the garden, the birch leaves change to the most vibrant of autumn yellows as the summer fades into autumn, cloaking the tree in a stunning, buttery, autumn colour.
Growing to about five metres in height and with a crown of about four metres, Betula Jacquemontii doesn’t need the biggest of spaces and will work in smaller gardens, where the choice of tree is critical, as there may only be room for one, where is will make the ideal focal point.
It adds something to the garden every day, be it leaf-colour, stem, the effect of its bark, or the beauty of the catkins. And of course, the 500 or so insect species that call your birch ‘home’ can only make for a more interesting and enjoyable outdoor room for you.
A birch tree from a nursery will cost around €15 — certainly worth the investment for the return provided by this tremendous performer.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved