Birches and Maples
What tree comes from China and has handsome copper red, papery bark?
If you identified either paperbark maple or Chinese red birch you would be equally correct. Acer griseum, the paperbark maple is a beautiful small tree with spectacular leaf colouring; Betula albosinensis, which grows rather taller, is a hardy and highly ornamental addition to larger gardens. Both have characteristic bark that sloughs off regularly to reveal the brilliant new bark beneath. Both were introduced to Britain in 1901 by a young botanist and plant hunter, Ernest Henry Wilson who discovered them during his travels in China.
Acer griseum’s native habitat is central China. In Britain it grows to about 40 feet tall; it has attractive foliage that stages a dramatic colour display through the year, with the young leaves orange in May, becoming pinkish-brown and then yellow, all before the summer’s deep green. In autumn the peeling, coppery bark is set off by deep red leaf hues.
Betula albosinensis is a native of the high country of central and western China and is a robust tree that once established, withstands cold, wind, drought and poor soils. Slightly taller growing than the Acer, it will reach a height of 50 feet in Britain. Its foliage is not dense, so you can underplant flowers beneath it.
The Chinese red birch is not the only ornamental birch widespread in British gardens. Betula pendula, the silver birch, is native to Britain and is Finland’s national tree, perhaps because it provides both the fuel and the whipping branches essential for saunas! A powerful liquor can also be brewed from the clear birch sap when it rises in the spring.
Silver birches have a papery white or silver bark that peels off in strips and historically was used for kindling. Although it is a short-lived tree, the Druids of ancient Britain revered it as a symbol of renewal and purification, using the twigs to banish the spirits of the old year.
The red and silver birches are the best known species in the UK; however there are a large number of less commonly available species and dozens of cultivars. For example Betula medwedewii 'Gold Bark' is a rare and handsome birch tree originally introduced from the Caucasus mountains in 1897. As the name suggests, it has gold tinged bark which complements deeply veined dark green leaves, turning bright yellow in autumn.
Unable to decide which tree is best for your garden? There are four National Plant Collections of Acer and six of Betula in the UK which you can visit and can see literally hundreds of trees at their best. Find the collections in your area using the Search facility at the top right of the screen.