The Lady of the Woods – beautiful birch trees

 In Gardens Visited
betula albosinensis var septentrionalis group

betula albosinensis var septentrionalis group

Birch trees are often called the “Lady of the Woods”. But don’t be misled by this tree’s name for it is a real toughie!

During the break between Christmas celebrations and New Year I visited a whole collection of these beautiful birch trees on the edge of Dartmoor. Trees up there need to be hardy to survive!

This collection of ‘Ladies’ are of course birch trees and in winter they look their very best. I guess they got their nickname since they look dainty and lady-like when growing among stouter oaks, ash and other native hard wood trees. But seen en masse, as they can be at Stone Lane Gardens, you can easily see why birch trees are such a popular garden and landscape tree. This is no ordinary collection of birch trees since it is a collection gathered together over 40 years by the late Kenneth Ashburner. His interest in these trees is the basis of this remarkable tree collection and has rightly been recognised and given National Plant Collection status.

Birch are very widely distributed around the globe and Ashburner travelled widely to both study and, just as importantly, bring those trees back to his collection a mile or two from Chagford in Devon.

betula utilis spp. utilis peeling

betula utilis spp. utilis peeling

You might think that if you’ve seen one birch tree then you have seen them all. But a visit to this collection will soon dispel that thought! With over 1000 trees there and almost 70 different types you can soon appreciate the differences that these hardy trees exhibit.

I was particularly struck by the variation that there is within just one species. The Himalayan birch [Betula utilis] shows just how variable it can be with bark colour from darkest brown right through to ghostly white. I’m told that this species is brown at the western end of its range but becomes white the further east you travel. How about that for finding your way in the mountains? It grows from northern Pakistan through Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan and well into China and gets whiter as you travel east!

betula utilis spp. jacquemontii grayswood ghost

betula utilis spp. jacquemontii grayswood ghost

What is particularly impressive about Stone Lane Gardens is that each species, and often each variety too, is planted as a tiny grove of trees and the effect can be dazzling!

Birch trees are amongst the very first pioneer trees to recolonise an area and so can cope in the garden with relatively poor soils. Kenneth Ashburner also collected and planted alders in this garden and these have also become a National Tree Collection. Alders are another key pioneer tree species and can often cope with very wet or poorly drained soils. At the time of my visit the alders did not look their best but very soon they will start to produce those long yellow catkins which are not dissimilar to hazel catkins.

Runner duck and white birch

A visit to this 5 acre garden at any time of the year will be rewarding but a visit in the next few weeks will be especially worthwhile. Alongside is a very small nursery where birch trees can be bought so if you fall in love with a particular coloured tree it is worth enquiring whether they have it. Trees there are small but, since birch are quick growing, that shouldn’t deter you and at least it will fit in the car with the kids and dog!  During the summer and autumn there is also an outdoor sculpture exhibition amongst the birch and alder trees.

The garden is open every day throughout the year and more details of the garden can be found at here.

You may be interested to read about other trees with attractive bark here.

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