In winter I’m always reminded – once again – what an important design function the right deciduous tree can play in a garden. In the spring and summer they provide shade and do their photosynthesis thing; in fall, if we are lucky, we get a glorious cascade of multiple red, orange and yellow hues as their leaves depart. In between there may be berries and flowers.
Come winter, though, what counts – besides the branching structure – is the bark. So when I design gardens for year-round interest (always an important goal), I find myself turning again and again to some personal favorites in that department.
In my own yard, I have a majestic American beech tree, Fagus grandifolia. It is a difficult tree in terms of getting anything to grow under it other than groundcover plants (although I have one large ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta that seems to be holding its own, right up against the trunk). But its smooth gray bark and enormous branches reaching to the sky make my heart sing whenever I see it as I return home.
Often I find I want a tree for a client’s garden that won’t “eat the house” – something that will grow relatively slowly but have an arresting winter presence from the outset. One frequent choice is the Kousa dogwood, preferred by many landscape designers in this area over the admittedly lovely flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) for its greater resistance to anthracnose (a disease often fatal to the native dogwood). Kousa dogwoods, which flower a little later than the native variety, have gorgeous exfoliating bark.
The Persian parrotia tree (Parrotia persica) has similar bark, although somewhat more muted in its palette.
As you can tell by now, I have a thing for trees with exfoliating bark (and both the Kousa and Parrotia have lovely flowers and great fall color as well). For my last entrant in this particular subcategory, here’s a tree with a little more heft in its eventual dimensions: the lacebark elm, or Ulmus parvifolia. These trees can reach a height of 40-50′ with a spread of 40′ if given room to grow. This is the tree I would choose for my own garden if anything ever happened to my beloved beech.
Since I’m so keen on bark, I will close with a photo I took of the bark of a Bottle Palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis) in a conservatory at Longwood Gardens several years ago. Sorry, unless you live in Florida or some other place where it never gets below 30 degrees F., this isn’t for your garden! But isn’t the bark great?