Your browser does not support script.
US National Arboretum



Beautiful Bark: Beyond Flowers, Fruit, and Foliage

As the last stubborn leaves fall to the ground, those of us who live in the temperate part of the country find that our gardens have undergone yet another transformation.  Many of the perennials have disappeared altogether; the steadfast evergreens take on their winter color; and the deciduous shrubs and trees have shed their leaves.  Though often hidden during the growing season, a tree’s beautiful bark finally comes to center stage in the winter.  

To keep your garden as attractive in the “down season” as in the growing season, try incorporating a tree with unique bark patterns into your planting scheme.  Place an attractive specimen near a path so you can appreciate the grain up close, or create a striking focal point in an underused area of your yard.  Both ideas can add a new dimension of interest to your winter-worn garden.

image of carpinus carolinianaThe American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), shown at left, has smooth gray bark with vertical ripples twisting the length of the trunk.  Also called musclewood, Carpinus is usually a small shade tree but can be planted in full sun if given enough moisture.  This tree’s wide range—from Quebec south through Mexico—makes it a promising addition for many American gardens.

image of clethra acuminataCinnamon clethra’s (Clethra acuminata) name comes from its beautiful tan and cinnamon-colored, peeling bark, shown at right.  Though summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)—cinnamon clethra’s spreading cousin—is the more popular of the two species, it is cinnamon clethra that has the distinct advantage of forming a single clump or small tree.  As an added bonus, it has the same fragrant mid-summer white flowers as summersweet.  Unfortunately, it is only available to those gardeners who live in USDA Hardiness Zones 6-8.

image of betula papyrifera


The exfoliating bark of birch trees (Betula sp.), left, has long been a favorite of gardeners and landscapers.  Perhaps the most striking species in the bunch is paper birch (Betula papyrifera, USDA Hardiness Zone 2), which has brilliant white bark.  Native to the northern half of the United States, Canada, and Alaska, paper birch is a great addition to northern gardens, yet suffers and declines in the hot summers of the south.  

image of betula alleghaniensis

Yellow birch’s (Betula alleghaniensis), peeling amber-gold outer bark shown at right, and wintergreen-flavored inner bark is another good option for gardeners in more northerly climes. 

image of betula nigraFor individuals living in the southeastern U.S., river birch (Betula nigra), left, —found naturally from the Great Lakes south to Florida and Texas—is better adapted to survive in their gardens.  All three species prefer full sun and moist soils, but could tolerate some shade.

West coast gardeners may find that madrone (Arbutus menziesii) fits the bill for “beautiful bark”.  The bark exfoliates freely, leaving behind a beautiful mahogany-red surface.  The tree endures drought and has interesting flowers and fruit.  For those in the Southwest, both palo verde (Cercidium floridum) with its smooth, green bark and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) with its gnarled canes will provide interest even during dormant seasons.  

image of acerStriped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), left, another option for the Northeast, has curious green and white-striped bark, while parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii), a small tree with gray, green, and tan molting bark, shown below, is a smart choice for southeastern gardens.  Lastly, the red-oiser dogwood (Cornus sericea)—a favorite that can be grown in most geographical regions—has amazingly bright red twigs which provide festive, seasonal interest year-round.image of crataegus marshallii

Species which have wide growing ranges also have immense variability between regions.  When researching the possibilities, go one step further to ensure your new tree is as cold hardy or heat tolerant as you need it to be, and visit your local native plant nursery.  

Ask for plants that have been propagated from local sources. Local genetic material which is already more adapted to your region will be less stressed and, therefore, more disease resistant.  Buying locally, you will also be helping to preserve and maintain the biodiversity of your local population—a bargain at twice the price!

Links back to:

 Back to the Arboretum Home Page
Arboretum Information || Events & Education || Gardens & Horticulture || Research Activities
Support the Arboretum || New Plant Introductions || USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map || Comments
Search Our Site

Last Updated   November 22, 2006 12:11 PM