Northeast Regional Reports

Beautiful Bark on Deciduous Trees

Consider the textural trunks of these captivating trees for winter interest

paperbark maple
The elegant copper curls of paperbark maple stand out against the snow. Photo: Kristin Green

Come winter, when gardens go quiet in the Northeast, most of us become so hard up for visual stimulation that we finally get excited about tree bark. Now that our eyes have adjusted to winter, trees’ designer hues and bark patterns are more noticeable, and even thrilling.

River birch bark
River birch bark peels like a wicked sunburn, which looks prettier on a tree than a nose. Photo: Kristin Green

It’s easy to fall for exfoliating bark. Only gardeners in the northernmost reaches of our region with consistently wet soil can grow the classic native paperbark birch (Betula papyrifera, Zones 2–6). The rest of us enjoy the wild pink peels of river birch (B. nigra, Zones 4–9), a multitrunked native tree that is tolerant of heat, humidity, and drought.

Japanese stewartia
Japanese stewartia’s bark flakes off in multicolored patches. Photo: Kristin Green

Another standout, paperbark maple (Acer griseum, Zones 4–8) displays elegant copper curls and is perfectly sized for small gardens with consistently moist soil. The same is true of Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, Zones 5–8), which is coveted as much for its multicolored puzzle-piece bark as its early summer camellia-like flowers. Japanese clethra (Clethra barbinervis, Zones 5–8) is an even smaller tree with midsummer racemes of pollinator-magnet flowers and delicately shedding silver-over-pink bark. All grow in full sun to partial shade.

Lichen on a katsura
Lichen on a katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Zones 4–8) glows on a damp, dark day. Lichen is not a cause of disease. Photo: Kristin Green

Mushrooms found on or around trees can indicate poor health, but it’s OK to like lichen. The bright green blotches and tufts of this opportunistic composite organism (an alga and fungus team) take up benign and decorous residence on trunks, branches, and other stable surfaces that get plenty of light. Lichen is an effect of defoliation and disease, not the cause. It also can’t tolerate air pollution, so wherever you see it on trees, rocks, and fenceposts, breathe easy.

Japanese clethra
Japanese clethra reveals shades of pink and orange under peeling shades of gray and brown. Photo: Kristin Green

When you add trees to your garden, design with winter in mind: even “boring” bark will look more interesting against contrasting textures and colors. Always site trees in optimal sun and soil for the species, and plant them at the proper depth. (See more on how to plant a balled and burlapped tree.) When trees are young and their bark is smooth and thin, they are particularly vulnerable to damage from clumsiness and well-intentioned interference. Keep lawnmowers and string trimmers away, and just say no to volcano mulching or any other treatment that blocks light and air. Nongardeners might think we’re nuts for geeking out about bark, but trees’ lives depend on our appreciation for the crucial role it plays.

—Kristin Green is the author of Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big With 150 Plants That Spread, Self-sow, and Overwinter. She gardens in Bristol, Rhode Island.

View Comments


Log in or create an account to post a comment.

Related Articles

The Latest