Birches have been catching human attention for hundreds of years. Their sap, bark, leaves, wood, twigs, and roots are used for food, construction materials, medicinal treatments and lubricants.
Birches vary in size from small shrubs to large trees. Most are relatively short lived and specimens over 100 years can be considered old.
Their leaves are typically oval or diamond-shaped with pointed tips and serrated edges, and often provide excellent autumn colour. However, they are perhaps best known for their beautiful bark which can vary from nearly black through cinnamon to pure white. Indeed the name birch is thought to come from the German word ‘bircha’ meaning shining white.
In northern Europe and parts of China, birch sap is drunk as a refreshing beverage. It has also been turned into birch syrup, vinegar, beer, soft drinks, and other foods. A less pleasant use was the binding of birch twigs in a bundle, to be used for birching, a form of corporal punishment. Today perhaps the most common use is the use of birch pulp to make printing paper.
Erman's birch, Betula ermanii
Found near Down Gate, our champion Erman's birch is an outstanding specimen and the largest in the UK. One of its remarkable features is the peeling bark that hangs from its large horizontal limbs. Relatively rare in cultivation, it was introduced from NE Asia and Japan in 1890.
One of the rarest birches in the world, Westonbirt Arboretum has one of the best UK collections of this globally threatened species from Japan. It tends to form a multi-stemmed shrub. We have several specimens along The Link in Silk Wood.
Cherry birch, Betula lenta
Scratch the twigs of this birch and you will smell the strong scent of oil of wintergreen which was once made from this species. A native of North America (introduced in 1759) it has smooth, dark reddish-brown or chocolate coloured bark and superb rich-yellow autumn colours. See it in The Link along with another American species, Betula alleghaniensis.
Chinese red birch, Betula albo-sinensis var. septentrionalis
This is one of the most beautiful of all birches for its shiny copper-coloured bark that peels to reveal a range of other tones. The arboretum’s best tree can be seen from Circular Drive at the northern end of Savill Glade.
Paper birch, Betula papyrifera
The paper birch is one of the most beautiful and useful of North American trees (introduced 1750). It has a narrow, open crown of slightly drooping branches.
Its bark is chalky to creamy white and peels in papery strips to reveal orange inner bark. It is also known as the canoe birch, as its bark was often used by Native Americans to make their lightweight waterproof canoes, bowls, and tipis.
Young’s weeping birch, Betula pendula 'Youngii'
A cultivar of our native silver birch (B. pendula), this pendulous form is one of the most graceful of all small trees. Our group in the 'Shop Window' area that looks out onto the A433 is possibly the best in the country, and makes a dramatic sight when lit up for the Enchanted Christmas event in December.