Westonbirt in winter is a landscape of surprises and subtle gems.
The greatest change occurs in our deciduous trees whose altered winter appearance gives the arboretum a completely new look and feel. Gone are the spring flowers, summer lushness and autumn fireworks. Instead textures, patterns and forms come to the fore.
In many areas of the arboretum, shrubs take the opportunity to grab centre stage. The flaming red-barked dogwoods around Scots Corner (23D - where Pool Avenue meets Holford Ride) and scarlet willows in the car park look vibrant in colour.
Winter flowering trees
Elsewhere, colour is provided by an even more unexpected source – for despite our winter weather a surprising number of trees choose to flower now.
For wind-pollinated trees this makes sense as it is generally windier and there is less foliage to hinder their pollen. In particular, hazel with its dangling lemon catkins is conspicuous around Silk Wood throughout January and February. If you look carefully along the twigs you can also find the purple spikes of the female flowers awaiting one of the four million pollen grains produced by each male catkin.
However, the most colourful winter display comes from the witch hazels whose spidery yellow flowers reliably bloom in mid-winter regardless of the weather. The best place to enjoy these is Savill Glade. Elsewhere another yellow-flowering tree is vying for attention – the cornelian cherry – a good specimen of which can be seen at Skilling Gate.
For colour and scent combined, Christmas box takes a lot of beating. Its spiky white flowers give off a delightful scent around Circular and Main Drives.
Perhaps surprisingly, only three conifers, the juniper, Scots pine and yew are native to Britain. All the other hundreds of species to be seen at the arboretum have been introduced.
With their bold shapes, needle-like foliage and enticing aromas, conifers have rightfully become popular ornamental plants. But although they are of interest all year round it is in winter that their sculptural elegance is best appreciated, standing proud against their gaunt deciduous neighbours.
Main Drive and Specimen Avenue are two of the best footpaths to explore the diversity of Westonbirt’s conifers, from magnificent American giants such as Douglas fir and Wellingtonia, to the elegant forms of the western red cedar, Deodar and cedar of Lebanon.
Birches are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere and you can not go far without seeing one. The combination of colourful and textured bark, catkins and graceful shape make them the most ornamental trees in winter.
The genus is represented in the arboretum by 34 different species and many cultivars. Eight of these are champions in the UK and some are particularly rare.
Erman’s birch, Betula ermanii
Take a look at the seasonal guide (get yours from admissions or the Great Oak Hall) to locate the huge Erman’s birch (Betula ermanii) in square 22H, at the end of Mitchell Drive close to Down Gate. This species is native to East Asia from the Kamchatka peninsula through pacific Russia to Korea and Japan and westward as far as Lake Baikal. The bark, particularly when young is most attractive and the foliage turns a lovely golden yellow in the autumn. Have a look at the way the bark rolls off the large branches above your head, fabulous!
Cherry birch, Betula medwediewii
Betula medwediewii is another beauty, this time from the Caucasus. This tree has quite a large course leaf turning golden yellow in the autumn. The catkins are large for the genus and can be most attractive at certain times of the year. Even without seeing the leaves or bark, the distinctive habit of branching at nearly ground level and then growing into what can only be described as a medium sized tree of multi-stemmed habit, makes identification easy. The arboretum’s largest specimen is 10m tall by about the same across and is found in square 21D on the map. We also have several smaller specimens in other parts of the arboretum.
Young's weeping birch, Betula pendula ‘Youngii’
Further down Mitchell Drive, one of the most dramatic sights is that of the group of Young’s weeping birches (Betula pendula ‘Youngii’) in the shop window (the view from the A433) particularly when lit-up in early November as a sneak preview for the Enchanted Christmas event.
Dwarf birch (Betula nana)
On a smaller scale but originating in more northern areas is the dwarf birch (Betula nana). This is a delightful little birch but can be quite hard to grow. Native to both northern Europe and North America it grows over large areas often on wet ground. The leaf is small, generally around one centimetre in diameter with rounded teeth, quite unlike any other birch. It does not grow much more than a metre tall but at its best is most attractive.
Many birches are recognised and selected as cultivars for their very beautiful bark, which gives all year round attraction. Several of these can be found in the arboretum.
Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) has probably more named cultivars than any other species. Native to the Himalaya and western China it was first introduced from Sikkim in 1849 by Sir Joseph Hooker. The attractive bark can be variable depending on its home range and differs from nearly black to the more common silver.
One particularly beautiful cultivar, Betula utilis ‘Doorenbos’ can be enjoyed while having a cup of tea in the café courtyard.
Finally, winter is an excellent time to view Westonbirt’s bird life, as our resident bird species are joined by a variety of northern migrants such as fieldfare, redwing, siskins and bramblings.
You may even see crossbills as they move from conifer to conifer tweaking out the seeds from cones. Find out more about our wildlife and bio-diversity here.
Why not see what's going on here during the winter by visiting our events calendar?