BETULA continued
last updated 17/12/2017

Betula utilis

Betula utilis is probably the most widely cultivated species of birch. In the wild, it has a vast distribution, throughout the Himalaya from Afghanistan and Kashmir to western China. In the past, three closely related species were recognised as B. utilis, B. jacquemontii and B. albosinensis. Very different at their extremes, it has proven sufficiently difficult to differentiate between them that is has recently been proposed that they should all be treated as subspecies of B. utilis. I will follow this nomenclature here.

B. utilis subsp. albosinensis stretches north and east from Western Sichuan in China. The predominant bark colour of this group are shades of silvery pink, often with a bloom of white. It is incredibly difficult to describe the bark colour because it changes as the tree matures. The inner face of the scroll of peeling bark is typically darker than the new layer revealed beneath. It doesn't always peel completely and consistently, and then variation occurs in the colour of the bark according to the length of time since the outer layer peeled off. It is darkest where it has most recently peeled, becoming lighter where it is longest exposed. Thus the extreme beauty of these trees is partly down to the contrast of the old and the new layers. In my experience, it takes much longer for the true characteristics of this group to develop. There are other botanical differences that identify this subspecies. For example, the leaves are often longer and thinner, with a matt upper surface, but that is not always the case.

B. utilis subsp. jacquemontii was originally collected in Kashmir, India by a Frenchman named Victor Jacquemont in 1831 having left France to get over a love affair. Unfortunately he died of cholera in Bombay, but his collections were returned to Paris. Nevertheless, the subspecies which bears his name is one of the most instantly recognisable trees in cultivation, with wonderful white bark. The numerous named selections vary in the detail of their shape and size, and also in the colour of the broad horizontal lenticels. Some are cream pink, whilst others are whiter. These fabulous trees are the mainstay of many a winter garden, and rightly so, for they can light up even the dreariest winter's day.

B. utilis subsp. occidentalis comes from the western end of the Himalaya and are also very white barked, though the leaves will tend to be smaller and squatter on this subspecies.

B. utilis subsp. utilis is found east of the area where subsp. jacquemontii is found, and southwest of that occupied by subsp. albosinensis. Often (but not always) the bark colour of this group is the darkest in the species, dominated by shades of brown with hints of oranges and reds. I love these rich colours in the winter garden, maximising the contrast, yet toning with the bright yellow and orange flowers of Hamamelis whilst showing off the pristine white snowdrops to perfection.

Where these subspecies meet and overlap, hybrids occur. The designation of these subspecies is not cut and dried, there's very much an evolution across their distribution, so when seed derived from these populations is brought into cultivation, it's not always easy to determine the exact identity of certain specimens. Betula are wind pollinated, so the situation becomes more complicated still when selections are made from seed derived from cultivated plants with other species in the vicinity. 

We have a tremendous collection of named cultivars, which really showcase the diversity of bark colour in this remarkable genus. Lovely as they are, there is so much more to birch than white bark.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Bowling Green' 
This selection traces back to the original Wilson 4106 collection from W. Sichuan, China. The original tree is now dead, but it grew adjacent to the Bowling Green at Werrington Park, Cornwall. The rich chestnut outer bark peels to reveal a paler silvery under layer. The buds are similarly coloured and catkins are freely produced. It is naturally free branching, the trunks typically remaining slender. However, it does seem that this is not the most accommodating cultivar to grow in cultivation.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'China Rose'
There have been a number of cultivars selected from seed collected from Gansu, most of which feature bark colours more to the red end of the range typical for this subspecies and this is no exception. 

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis var. septentrionalis 'China Ruby'
This cultivar name was given to a tree at Hillier's West Hill Nursery in Hampshire that is thought to have been a Wilson collection. In my experience here it is considerably less vigorous than the species, so eminently suited to small gardens, this can be a very dramatic tree once established. The rich pink bark can appear almost scarlet when wet. This then peels to reveal creamy-white under-bark that is tinged with grey and pink. The leaves are a rather bluish green, whilst the twigs are much more “warty” than is usual.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Chinese Garden' 
Reputedly from the same batch of seed as ‘Bowling Green’, this one is much better behaved. The rich pinkish- chestnut bark is even darker than that of ‘Bowling Green’, with less contrast between the different layers giving a more consistent visual effect. By comparison the overall habit is squatter than 'Bowling Green', but just as free branching. Apparently, although its introduction dates back to 1910, this clone wasn’t actually named until some 80 years later. 

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Cobhay Gansu Red'
This is our own selection from see collected in Gansu, China. With time this one develops lovely red tints through its bark.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'E. Eider'
This one came to us from Sweden, where it was selected for supreme hardiness and bark colour. And so it stands out in our collection (though hardiness is not a relevant concern in this country) not only for the rich orange-pink-mahogany colours that are so hard to describe, but for its size and habit too. It has proven to be distinctly upright in habit and rather more compact than most.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Joseph Rock'
Another wonderful selection from Sweden, this cultivar really does stand out. As the tree matures, the bark effect becomes increasingly purple, a unique colour in our collection. It is also considerably taller and more upright than any other, typically making a very elegant and slender multi-stemmed tree.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis var. septentrionalis 'Kansu'
Another of the Gansu wild collections, this selection has particularly good vigour and has become a "stand out" tree in our collection. The bark becomes shades of copper and pink, overlaid with a distinct bloom.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Kenneth Ashburner' 
A vigorous, upright selection. The cinnamon coloured bark peels to reveal a pinky red under layer which is initially covered in a white bloom, giving a silvery pink effect.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Ness' (Clone F) 
This is another of the richly coloured selections originating from Gansu in China. The gorgeous chestnut bark peels to reveal a rich pink under-layer beneath the ghostly white bloom.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Pink Champagne'
Also from the Ness Gardens seedlings, this selection from seed collected by the Chinese Forestry Service in the Gansu province of China really stands out amongst its peers. The bark becomes an intoxicating hard to describe, but paling beneath a white bloom of betulin over the surface. This clone typically branches freely to create a wonderful symmetrical structure. The foliage is distinctive too, being more heavily textures and a rich deep green. One of my favourites.

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis var. septentrionalis 'Purdom' 752
This graceful tree develops a light airy canopy (great for under-planting). The deep maroon-pink bark has a blue-white bloom. I find this selection to be much smaller and slower growing than the others. In fact, I'm inclined to describe it as "weaker" which goes some way to explaining why it's rarely available!

BETULA utilis subsp. albosinensis 'Red Panda'
These plants are derived from the spectacular specimen growing at Wisley RHS Garden. I understand that the original seed was collected in the early nineties by Steve Sponberg as part of a Sino / American expedition, from the Shennongjia national park in Hubei, China. It was named by Jim Gardiner, then curator at Wisley, after the red pandas who inhabit that locality, with an oblique reference to the bark colour. 

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