Joyce Mendenhall is a Master Gardener who enjoys observing nature’s unusual designs.

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Barking Up the Right Tree
by Joyce Mendenhall    

Diversity In Bark Patterns and Surfaces Can Add Interest to the Landscape

Some trees, such as crapemyrtle, shed bark in patches, resulting in a multicolored, mottled effect.

Bark may not be the first thing that comes to mind when choosing a tree. Even those of us who are quick to celebrate the practical significance that trees play in our lives often neglect to consider the simple beauty of their bark. However, after noticing it most gardeners find bark to be quite interesting.

Spend some time examining trees up close and you’ll discover an astounding diversity of bark patterns and surfaces. Bark varies dramatically in texture, thickness and color from tree to tree, and from year to year. With time the protective wrapping of dead plant tissue gains character, acquiring the knots, burls, mottling, scars, ridges and fissures that trace the story of a tree’s life as effectively as a fortune teller may discern human drama in the lines, wrinkles and calluses of a subject’s palm.

Many trees in the cherry family have glistening, reddish brown to mahogany colored bark.

Bark exfoliating into papery strips or chips creates a highly textural, sometimes “shaggy” surface, such as in the birch pictured here.

The rough and scaly bark of the common cedar tree takes on a new beauty in the winter landscape.

Birch trees with their strikingly attractive bark and lovely leaves, especially in fall when they turn golden yellow, make them natural standouts among other backyard plantings. There are many kinds of birch trees to choose from, but the paper birch (Betula papyrifera), also known as the canoe or white birch, is one of the most recognized. The cinnamon-toned shaggy bark of the river birch (Betula nigra) is attractive year-round. Most importantly, it is one of the few birches that can tolerate hot, humid climates. To take full advantage of their beautiful bark, plant river birches in front of a backdrop of evergreens where they’ll stand out all year long.

Many trees have beautiful ornamental bark. Some even have exfoliating bark, which literally peels itself off the tree. The bark of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) exfoliates in thin sheets, exposing the cinnamon-red bark beneath. Once it matures, this tree becomes the focal point of any landscape. The paperbark maple is a slow-growing tree, which might explain why it is seldom planted. However, it is truly worth considering.

Crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia) is a large deciduous shrub whose bark is attractively mottled in gray, pink and cinnamon. The Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) bark flakes off the trunk and main limbs with age, creating a multicolored, mottled effect. The bark on some flowering cherry trees is also quite striking. Most cherries have dark red to purplish bark with darker vertical lenticels. One conifer known for its bark is the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) – the bark is similar to a sycamore tree and is worth planting.

Winter is a good time to notice the interesting bark around us. In a landscape pared down to its bare bones, we better appreciate the nuances that nature carves into every trunk, limb, branch and twig. Redtwig dogwoods have bright red twigs in winter. The bark is most colorful on first-year growth, so cut old stems to the ground every year or two, just before they leaf out in spring.

Over the years, many people have thought it to be somewhat therapeutic to peel the bark off trees. Although it may be therapeutic for the peeler, it is not necessarily therapeutic for the tree. When one looks at bark aesthetically, one misses the point of bark: that it is a protective device for the tree and that its unique characteristics are functional. Bark serves to protect a tree. Without bark, there would be no trees.

An example of bark protecting a tree is the white birch, which loses its leaves in the winter, thereby exposing the tree to the harsh sunlight. If the tree absorbs too much heat, it will die. The pale color of its bark reflects the sunlight away from the tree, helping it to survive. There are even trees with poisonous bark which protects them from being eaten by animals. Common trees with poisonous bark are the black locust, the yew tree and the elderberry tree.

Bark has its uses for humans as well as trees. Native Americans used birch bark to build canoes and wigwams. The bark was also used to write on. There are oils in many different barks around the world that people use.

Trees not only beautify your home, but they also add value as well. Distinguish your home from the rest of the neighborhood by planting some with unique bark characteristics.


(From State-by-State Gardening September 2006. Photos by Joyce Mendenhall)



Posted: 11/16/11   RSS | Print


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