November's Plant of the month

The beauty of bark - the black birch

I bet there isn’t a gardener out there who doesn’t appreciate a good tree. They come in so many shapes, sizes and growth rates, with seasons of interest that can extend to all times of year – in all but a few cases a tree is a garden must-have. 

When the autumn comes, many trees take on a more important role. Why? Two things, as far as the gardener is concerned: 1) their structure and 2) their bark. One particularly good example is the black birch (aka river birch or red birch) Betula nigra.

Betula nigra 'Little King'Betula nigra is a bushy deciduous tree that grows to about 15m (50ft) or more. It has peeling bark, at first reddish brown, later almost black – hence the common name (it also enjoys damp conditions, hence the other common name, although that may be because the bark is waterproof and flexible, and was used by Native Americans to cover their tepees and canoes). All summer long it has glossy dark green leaves that turn yellow in autumn before falling to reveal the beautiful bark.

You can find specimens on Battleston Hill and in the Pinetum. But for a real treat, visit the end of Howard’s Field where you can find the cultivar ‘Little King’. This remarkable specimen is a real eye-catcher; a single tree with nine trunks! You can really enjoy the reddish grey bark that curls away from the stem in papery flecks. When it catches the light it looks ruffled and textured. It’s all the better in the shimmery sunlight at this time of year.

This is one of the trees that is featured on our brand new 'Beauty of Bark' trail at RHS Garden Wisley that goes live on 12th November. Download a copy of the brochure, or pick one up at the garden.

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