The birch is an elegant tree with so much for us to enjoy. Its yellow spring catkins blowing gently in a breeze, the tiny diamond leaves that let the light shine through, their autumn colour, and the tactile, peeling bark of its trunk.

Three of the species native to Scotland were probably the first trees to colonise our soil as it was revealed by the retreating glaciers of the Ice Age. And birch has been among the first to move into vacant ground ever since.

Over the years, I’ve seen this process at work. When we first came here, gorse had started to spread up the hill behind us, but before long alder, hazel and birch found bare patches to germinate and they’ve now emerged above the skin-ripping vegetation. Before too long, the trees will shade out and kill the gorse.

Although most birches reach between 8 and 12 metres, if you have a small garden, you could instead go for a dwarfing variety. And though, like most plants, they need full sun or dappled shade, some can cope with damp, but not soggy ground. There are weeping cultivars and many can be pruned to develop 3 or 5 stems, instead of a single trunk.

But it is the bark of birches that is such an important asset over the winter months when there’s less of interest in many of our gardens. Colours range from the striking white of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii 'Moonbeam' to the deep orange of B. utilis ‘Fascination’. New cultivars are being released every year, including the recently launched B. albo-sinensis ‘China Birch’, with its striking orangey-red bark.

You need to grow these varieties in reasonably fertile ground in an open sunny spot or dappled shade, but some cultivars, especially of downy birch, B. pubescens, can cope with damp, acidic soil. Another option is B. nigra ‘Cully’, ‘River Birch’, with the more unusual pale yellowish cream bark.

If your soil is wet and you’re cramped for space, Betula nana, Arctic or Dwarf Birch, could be the solution. Because it only reaches 60cm, with a 1.2m spread, it will grow successfully in a restricted space. But if you’ve room in a drier sunny place for a low-growing birch, B. medwedewii ‘Gold Bark’ could be the answer.

I can’t see beyond a tall Silver Birch, especially when stripped of its foliage. The bark of a tree is often ignored, and quite wrongly, given the unique shape and design of every genus, and this is specially true of birches. But its slim branches and pendulous twigs are equally important, allowing the light to filter through, and letting you glimpse the view beyond.

But birches are very accommodating. If, unlike me, you’re attracted to weeping forms, B. pendula ‘Weeping Birch’ is for you. B. nigra ‘Summer Cascade’ and B. pendula youngii ‘Young’s Weeping Birch’ might also take your fancy.

For me, pruning a young tree to produce a multi-stemmed tree is preferable. A birch we planted many years ago, achieved this itself, following accidental damage to the trunk. So the V-shape of its 2 large trunks now provide a broader canopy which comes in to its own just now.

Without Nature’s help like this, you can prune a young birch when around a metre tall. Cut the leader horizontally, leaving no less than 20cm of trunk, or, if you prefer, as much as 30-60cm. After a year or two, several vertical stems will have grown. Reduce this to 3 or 5 good ones, cutting the rest right back. At this stage, leave the lower branches and only remove once the new vertical stems are established.

Plant of the week

Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’. Rich, crimson coloured stems and autumn leaves make your garden glow. This hardy Cornus has white flowers in early summer.