In Appreciation of Bark
The winter landscape may seem a bit bland at first glance. But if you
look closely, you'll find that quite a few plants have interesting bark
that is actually easier to appreciate without the distraction of leaves
Bark often changes over time, so that a species that starts out with
thin, smooth bark on twigs and young branches may become thick and flaky
or change in color as the plant matures. Beautiful bark comes in many
forms, including smooth, shiny, ridged, flaky, blocky or peeling.
Among the better-known candidates for ornamental bark are the birches,
the paper bark birch (Betula papyrifera) most obvious. As the tree
gets a few years of age, the outer white bark peels off in horizontal
sheets to reveal reddish-brown bark beneath. There are several other birch
species with attractive bark, including European white birch (Betula
pendula) with white, non-peeling bark eventually mottled with black,
sweet birch (Betula lenta) with shiny, reddish-brown bark and river
birch (Betula nigra) with peeling, scaly bark mottled with cinnamon
brown, beige and orange.
Some of the most beautiful bark belongs to the cherry (Prunus)
species, many of which are lustrous, shiny and characterized by horizontal
grayish-brown markings that are very distinctive. The native black cherry
(Prunus serotina) has attractive grayish-black bark, but, due to
its prolific production of seedling offspring, can be quite a nuisance
species. Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) is a shrubby cherry
with reddish-brown, shiny and peeling bark. But the best of all cherries
is the paperbark cherry (Prunus serrula) with its rich, shiny,
reddish-brown bark that peels with age to resemble satin ribbons. Sadly,
this species is only marginally hardy in northern and central Indiana.
Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) is quite different from
the shrub lilacs, distinguished by reddish-brown bark, turning gray and
scaly with age, and has prominent horizontal markings similar to cherry
Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) is one of my personal all-time
favorites, distinguished by rich, cinnamon brown peeling bark, especially
breathtaking in winter with snow on the ground and backlighting from low-angled
American hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is somewhat similar to
shagbark hickory (Carya ovata); its grayish-brown bark peeling in vertical
strips that curve away from the trunk at the top and the bottom, remaining
attached in the middle.
The sycamore or American planetree (Platanus sp.) is noted by
mottled bark with large patches of gray brown peeling away to reveal creamy
inner bark. The London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia) has an
even more distinguished bark, with creamy white, brown and pistachio green
Lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) has a fabulous mottled bark of
gray, green, brown and orange. Also called Chinese elm, this species should
NOT be confused with the weedy, nuisance Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila).
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) is another tree with outstanding
mottled bark with gray, light and dark brown.
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is well known for its smooth, light
gray to nearly silver bark. European beech (Fagus sylvatica) also
has a smooth bark but is darker gray that ages gracefully.
Yellowwood (Cladrastis lutea) is a native species that is somewhat
similar to beech bark character, though much smaller in height and spread.
Another bonus is the fragrant white flowers in spring.
Turkish Filbert (Corylus colurna) develops a grayish-brown outerbark
that flakes with age to reveal an orangy-brown innerbark.
Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) has a handsome texture
characterized by rugged dark brown, scaly ridges.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is distinguished in both color and
texture with reddish-brown, deeply ridged bark.
Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is another native species distinguished
by dark grayish-brown black bark that with age breaks up into a pattern
American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) has a smooth, bluish-gray
bark that lies over rippled hardwood below, giving the effect of flexed
muscles. The European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) has similar but
Though these are some of the more notable species with attractive bark,
once you're more aware of bark as a character, you'll start to notice
bark on many plants.