Georgia Gardener Newsletter Design Tip: October 30, 2008

Plants with Interesting Bark

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Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

With the onset of winter less than eight weeks away, deciduous trees and shrubs are shedding their leaves faster than a long-haired dog in June. As these plants take on their naked look for the winter, the once hidden bark of the trunks and limbs becomes visible. Of course, attractive bark can also be found in some evergreens. Plants with attractive bark create year round interest in the garden. Placing these plants so that their bark can be enjoyed is easy to do.

I like to classify interesting bark into several non-scientific categories: peeling, colorful, smooth, striated (or striped) and knobby. Some plants have bark with more than one of these characteristics.

Peeling (Exfoliating) Bark

There are plants where the bark peels back yet remains on the plant giving a "shaggy" appearance. The most commonly known plant with this characteristic is the native river birch (Betula nigra). These trees are often grown for this very trait and have their lower limbs removed in order to maximize the visibility of the peeling trunks. Likewise our native sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis) has peeling bark which reveals a smooth gray-white layer underneath.

River Birch Sycamore

Other plants with the shaggy-peeling look are oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia), white oaks (Quercus alba), shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) and lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) .

Colorful Bark

One of my favorite characteristics is bark that is brightly colored. There are several plants currently available that have this trait. In addition to the redtwig dogwood pictured at the top, there is also the yellowtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea')and the coral bark Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku'). In colder climates, these plants really put on a winter show when surrounded by a blanket of snow. Alas, we in the south do better by having a backdrop of evergreens to highlight their color.

Coral Bark Japanese Maple Red & Yellowtwig Dogwoods

Smooth Bark

There are easily dozens of plants that fit into this category. Personally, I think those plants that have smooth bark are more attractive if there is also a splash of color. A good example of this would be the bark on some of the larger hollies. Savannah holly (Ilex x attenuata 'Savannah') has a wonderfully smooth bark that is colored with blotches of gray and white. Combine this with its glossy evergreen leaves and red winter berries and you have a truly handsome plant. This smooth blotchy bark trait can also be found on Burford, Nellie Stevens, Yaupon, and other hollies.

Another plant that I would throw into this category is the Natchez crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia x 'Natchez'). Although the bark of this plant technically is exfoliating, it never seems to retain the peeled bark very long with the smooth rose/pink underneath layer being the most prominent feature.

Savannah Holly Natchez Crape Myrtle

Other plants with showy smooth bark include the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and quite a few maples (Acer spp.).

Striated & Knobby Bark

These bark characteristics are a bit lesser known and possibly for good reason. Often for plants to achieve showy striated or knobby bark, they have to attain some age and size. I would equate these traits to the wrinkles of old age, however they seem to look better on the plants. There are a few exceptions to the age/size requirement. Lace parasol winged elm (Ulmus alata 'Lace Parasol') is an outstanding weeping/dwarf cultivar of our native winged elm. Its knobby bark is quite distinct on the trunk and branches, yet the tree pictured below is barely 4 feet tall. Likewise, young musclewood trees (Carpinus caroliniana) have noticeable striated grooves that deepen with age.

For the most part, these knobby/striated/grooved traits become more noticeable with age. Such is the case with the parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii). I had never encountered such a mature specimen as the one in the image below, so I had no idea that these trees developed such texture and color on their bark.

Parsley Hawthorn Lace Parasol Winged Elm

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