Without the encumbrance of their leafy mantle trees reveal their hidden assets: striking silhouettes and beautiful bark. Arguably all trees develop attractive trunks as they mature, everyone as characteristic of the species as the leaves, shape and habit of the plant. However some excel in the bark department, and for some this is their greatest asset. When choosing a tree this is worth considering. The plants growing beneath and around a tree are in closer contact with the bark than any other part of the tree, therefore its colour and texture can play an important part in leading the scheme.
Probably the best known tree for outstanding bark is the paper bark maple, Acer griseum. No one can fail to admire the fabulous peeling, cinnamon bark of this lovely small tree, with the additional asset of small neat leaves, and outstanding autumn colour. It greatest drawback is its slow growth rate: a tree for the patient! In my early days at Hillier Nurseries I often took orders for this tree from gardeners who had seen it in its mature glory. When they came to collect, expecting a substantial specimen, nothing could conceal their disappointment when presented with a stick in a pot. Thirty years later those that persisted and planted will certainly be admiring that rich colour and texture they had imagined.
Prunus serrula, the Tibetan cherry is the other popular choice of tree with beautiful bark. This really does come into its own in winter as the shining mahogany, peeling and banded bark adds colour and reflects the low winter light. The polished areas appear almost varnished as the stem sheds its outer skin regularly in peeling ringlets. This is a tree to be stroked rather than hugged!.
Prunus serrula is a lovely focal point amidst bronze carex, burnished uncinia and the ruby-brown winter leaves of bergenias. But what are its other assets? Narrow, unprepossessing leaves and a fleeting display of white flowers may disappoint those seeking a more complete package.
Prunus maakii, the Manchurian cherry has lighter amber coloured bark, stunning in low winter light and still striking throughout the year. This cherry has a flame shaped head, apple green leaves and golden yellow autumn colour. The fluffy white flowerheads are not exciting, but I would still choose the selection ‘Amber Beauty’ over Prunus serrula because I find the colour of the smooth, silky, sensual bark more uplifting. I have Prunus maackii ‘Amber beauty underplanted with Berberis stenophylla ‘Etna’ and blue muscari: simply delicious!
I bet anyone visiting a winter garden will be captivated by the coral-red bark of Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’. This is a tricky tree to grow requiring acid soil and hating disturbance. It is best planted as a small pot grown specimen, cut back hard after planting to encourage vigorous growth: a challenge in itself, decapitating a new plant. However in the right conditions and once established it is a striking small tree glowing in the winter light.
Personally I would always choose a birch for its light airy habit, delicate tracery of twigs and exquisite bark. The Himalayan birch Betula utilis var. jacquemontii is the most widely planted and grown, both as a standard tree and as a multi-stem. Prized for its smooth white bark it is not the only birch to consider and it ultimately too big for many gardens. The selection ‘Grayswood Ghost’ is smaller and more compact in habit with chalk white smooth bark, wonderful underplanted with evergreen ground cover and white Erica carnea or Erica x darleyensis.
I also love the smooth creamy bark of Betula ermanii, which has a more slender habit and smaller leaves. It is the earliest to come into leaf, and the earliest to fall, the leaves turning gold in early autumn. The early departure of the foliage could be seen as an advantage; more time to enjoy the bark. Betula albosinensis ‘Fascination’ is an excellent garden choice because it has a lighter, flame-shaped head and small dark green leaves. The bark is a dreamy cocktail of amber, orange and peach, becoming creamy as the tree matures. This is a good variety to plant as a clump of three growing close together to create a mini-copse.
Living on the edge of the New Forest, in Hampshire, England I am always captivated by the beauty of our British native silver birch, Betula pendula. The craggy white, grey and black fissured bark is quite stunning in sun or the soft grey light of cloudy winter days. In early evening ,as the sky turns to indigo, the black filigree silhouette is like something from an Arthur Rackham illustrated fairy tale. No wonder the common name is ‘Lady of the Woods’; think I’d like to be an elf living in a birch wood!
Other trees with beautiful bark:
Acer davidii ‘George Forrest’, Acer davidii ‘Serpentine’ and Acer capillipes - the snake-bark maples
Prunus x schmittii – striking bark but more suited to amenity planting than gardens
Stewartia pseudocamellia – lovely choice for acid soils
Luma apiculata – formerly known as Myrtus – for milder areas
Arbutus menziesii and Arbutus x andrachnoides - For milder areas; good near the coast
Eucalyptus dalrympleana – fast growing and stunning; needs space.
Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila - smaller eucalypt; the best choice for gardens.
Betula nigra, Betula maximowicziana, Betula szechuanica and a host of other lovely birches!
Metasequoia glyptostroboides - the dawn redwood, spongy cinnamon bark
I’m sure there are lots that I’ve missed so I would love to have your suggestions too. Which are your favourite trees with beautiful bark? Where have you seen them? Marwood Hill, Devon is a fantastic garden to see trees with beautiful bark – check out my blog…..
Why not join me on my next tree course? Learn about choosing, using and planting trees, and how trees work as part of a planting scheme. We can discuss bark, blossom, leaves and all the ways that trees contribute to create a beautiful garden picture.