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Cuttings: Bring up the birch

ANY TIME now, the pale mauve flowers of Crocus tommasinianus will be through and opening up with the first hint of sunshine. They seed and multiply furiously, even in root-riddled grass under lime trees, but must have direct sun and warmth to open. Birches give the lightest shade, and the white trunks look splendid with crocuses.

We polish our young birch trunks at this time of year, to bring out the colouring. Older trees are too corrugated to show improvement, but young, smooth bark repays the effort. A gentle scrub with a soft brush will remove winter lichen and greenness, and a hose-down afterwards will leave the trunk sparkling.

The Himalayan birch, Betula utilis var. jaquemontii, is always the most impressive; it is pure, waxy, chalk-white, and the colouring runs out on to the branches (although we draw the line at scrubbing them).

Less conspicuous but more seductive is Betula albo-sinensis var. septentrionalis (no common name, I'm afraid), whose bark is a satin-sheened, coppery pink, reminiscent of Ginger Rogers's legs at their best. We wash them with reverence and admire the glow.