Between the lines: silver birch trees in winter. Photograph: Alamy
Look up and you will see one of the best things this coming season has to offer in the bare branches. Every tree has its own character – the beech slender and steely; the oak twisting and gnarled, its growth showing exactly how long it has taken to attain stature. Distinct among any group or thicket is the birch. On elderly Betula pendula – though elderly may be not much more than 50 or 60 years, as they are fast-growing trees – the branches will hang gracefully to catch the wind. An old tree, now black and white where the bark has cracked dark as charcoal will show its age in the trunk, but the finely spun limbs will always retain the grace of their youth.
The birch is a pioneer among trees, the scaly wafer-thin seed being light enough to blow from the branches for quite some distance. Happiest on acid soils but content in most, they will often be one of the first trees to grow in newly disturbed ground.
You might think this was the behaviour of a weedy species, and I have pulled a few in my time, but birch is a tree that it is easy to welcome. In three years from seed they will be slender whips, but in seven their russet-coloured bark will be showing white and the branches reaching high enough to cast you a dapple of shade to stand in.
Being pioneers, our native birch suit their own company and the nicest plantings of Betula pendula are en masse, so you can enjoy the repeat of their chalky stems. The groves planted not so long ago between Tate Modern and the river are even beginning to cope with the scale of the building behind them as they mature. Birch is not a tree I’d use if gravity were needed, but their veil of twiggery is one of the nicest ways of concealing something you might not want to see without blocking it entirely. This is why they are good for fraying edges and for stopping a boundary from feeling final.
The heightened ornamental quality of the species from China and the Himalayas make fine stand-alone trees. Betula utilis var jacquemontii is perhaps the whitest of them all. It lacks the delicacy of our native B pendula, but packs a punch in the right place. There are several forms that are as good, and of them “Silver Shadow” is one of the best.
Betula ermanii is unusual among the group for bark that is touched with salmon pink. The pink-and-red-coloured forms of Betula albosinensis are more colourful still, and “Kenneth Ashburner” or “Septentrionalis” have bark that peels away like paper as the stem stretches from season to season to reveal new colour underneath.
The latter are smaller in stature as trees and useful for a smaller garden, as is the much-underrated Betula nigra. The river birch is a tree for wet places, the pale bark flaking as it ages until it is frilled and feathering the trunks. Team it with fiery-coloured Salix for the winter and you will find the dark months are something you positively look forward to.
To make a birch multistem, plant three whips together to grow as one tree or cut an established five-year-old sapling to the base in early winter. Rub out regenerating shoots to three in spring.