Sign up for our newsletter
Gardening in the Rainy Zone.
Barking up the Right Tree
I love trees. There, I said it. I admit my love of all things arboreal. How can one not love trees? Their canopies offer respite from summer sun and heat. Many trees' flowers are as spectacular, and in greater quantity, as perennials. Their limbs provide shelter to birds that entertain us with song and conduct insect patrol. Autumnal foliage adds to our gardens' glorious color crescendos. However, it is in winter when trees that sport magnificent bark strut their stuff and claim center stage--and rightly so. While other plants quietly rest until spring, trees add winter interest via bark color, pattern and texture.
Of the 16 deciduous trees I've added since my garden's humble beginnings, eight have striking bark; three were planted within the last six months. Among the first plants I added were two fabulously barked trees, paper bark maple (Acer griseum) and coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku'). They were expensive purchases, but 12 years later, that investment has rewarded me many times over. Although paper bark maples grow slowly, they exhibit their characteristic peeling bark at a young age; time only increases their beauty. A low-growing evergreen backdrop, such as Viburnum davidii, provides a perfect foil to this bark beauty. One caveat: plant this tree out of reach of the casual wanderer, to reduce the temptation to peel away strips of the cinnamon-colored bark.
Protecting Young Tree Bark
Wrap the trunks of young trees during their first few winters to prevent bark splitting damage caused by a warm south sun striking cold trunks. Materials such as brown paper or white geotextile tree wraps will work. These should be available at local nursery centers. Site tender-barked trees, such as snake bark maples and stewartias, where a hot summer sun won't scorch the bark and cause sunscald. For prime wintertime enjoyment, site your trees near windows so you can admire their beauty from inside.
The brightly colored growth of the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku'), gave the tree its common name. Young trees, wet with winter rain, shine as if freshly painted head to toe. New branches on older trees are equally vibrant, but the color gradually mutes to earthy peaches, greens and creams, as if Mother Nature didn't have enough pigment and resorted to color-washing the rest of the tree. These two traits--better with age and brightly colored young growth--are common among trees with bark interest. In general, those with peeling or patchy bark require time to fully develop, while those with vibrantly colored growth flaunt their brilliance predominately on new growth. However, as always, there are exceptions to the rule.
Jacquemontii Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) a quick-growing medium-sized tree, offers peeling, chalky-white bark, even at a young age, and clean green foliage that colors a clear yellow in fall. Because there can be some variability in bark color, select young trees exhibiting the trademark white bark. Betula nigra 'Cully' and Betula pendula 'Youngii' also offer impressive bark.
Korean dogwoods (Cornus kousa), and Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa var. chinensis) are renowned for their showy late spring, early summer blooms, but their bark flakes with age, exposing subtle shades of gray and beige. Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) is another in this genus with exfoliating bark.
My latest acquisitions are Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), a columnar Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica 'Vanessa'), and crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia 'Tuscarora'). The bark of Japanese stewartia exfoliates to reveal patches of green, gray, rusty-brown, pink, cream and tan patches. While I wait for its bark show, I will enjoy the camellia-like summer flowers and red, orange and purple fall foliage. Its relative orangebark stewartia (Stewartia monadelpha), as its common name implies, delights gardeners with mottled, burnt orange bark.
In time, the smooth, gray bark of 'Vanessa' Persian ironwood flakes away to expose fawn-colored patches. Persian ironwoods also offer jubilant crimson, orange and gold fall color.
I reveled in the two-month long coral pink flower show provided by my 'Tuscarora' crape myrtle. Eventually, I will also enjoy its year-round display of light brown exfoliating bark. Given this species' quick growth, I may not need to wait long. Many crape myrtles feature interesting bark, ranging from the madrone-like beauty of 'Miami' to the varied tones of cinnamon-brown patches offered by 'Natchez', considered by many to be the best of the bunch.
In November, I will plant a Japanese zelkova (Zelkova serrata 'Green Vase'), an elm family member, which will provide a canopy of dappled shade, rusty orange fall color and cherry-like bark that flakes with age. My other choice for this garden corner was a lacebark elm, Allée®* (Ulmus parvifolia 'Emer II'). I love its orange, tan and gray mosaic-patterned bark, but its greater width posed space challenges for me. Other forms of Japanese zelkova offer interesting bark, as do some forms of elm, particularly those with U. parvifolia heritage, which also boasts Dutch elm disease resistance.
There are many small- to medium-sized trees worthy of garden space, such as seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides), trident maple (Acer burgeranum), several snake bark maples, Acer tegmentosum, A. tegmentosum 'Joe Witt', and A. conspicuum `Phoenix', and at least one tree lilac, China Snow®* (Syringa pekinensis 'Morton'). The tree lilac has exfoliating bark that mimics paper bark maple. Most snake bark maples have green and white striped bark, but A. conspicuum `Phoenix' has knock-your-socks-off orangey-pink bark with white stripes. It's especially bright in winter.
If you want a flowering cherry, consider one grafted onto a birch bark cherry trunk (Prunus serrula), or, if you can find it and you have enough garden space, opt for the complete package of a P. serrula. Place it where morning and evening sunlight will light the peeling strips of mahogany red bark from behind, setting them aglow like tiny panes of stained glass.
Oh, if only I had room to plant more trees!
Pacific Northwest gardeners have an enviable predicament--narrowing our tree choices to a manageable number from a wealth of options. One or two (or three or four) will surely suit your garden's size and style. Be forewarned, once you start down the road of beauty bark addiction, it becomes difficult to resist their siren song. It calls as loudly as any floral beauty, and it provides a much longer garden show.
by Lisa Albert
- Top photo: Acer 'Phoenix' photographed by Debbie Teashon at Kinen's Big & Phat Special Plants, Gresham, Oregon.
- Second photo: Cornus 'Moonbeam' photographed by Lisa Albert in author's garden.
- Third photo: Stewartia pseudocamellia photographed by Debbie Teashon at Heronswood Nursery, Kingston, Washington.
- Fourth photo: Syringa 'Morton' photographed by Lisa Albert at J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., Boring, Oregon.
All rights reserved.