Barking up the Right Tree

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.

Fagus grandifolia branches, American beech

The upper reaches of my large American beech, in the fall after its leaves have dropped.

Fagus grandifolia bark, American beech

A closeup of the bark of an American beech at the National Arboretum. Note the smooth gray color.

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.

Cornus kousa bark, Kousa dogwood bark

Bark of a Kousa dogwood at the National Arboretum.

The Persian parrotia tree (Parrotia persica) has similar bark, although somewhat more muted in its palette.

Parrotia persica, Persian parrotia tree, exfoliating bark

A Parrotia's exfoliating bark shines even in the dead of winter.

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.

Ulmus parvifolia bark, lacebark elm bark, National Arboretum

A prime specimen of the lacebark elm showing off the reason for its common name, at the National Arboretum.

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?

Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, bottle palm bark

The bark of a Bottle Palm at Longwood Gardens.

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8 Comments on “Barking up the Right Tree”


  1. I’m a big fan of interesting bark too, and you have shown us some lovely examples. I think the Persian parrotia is my favourite but only because I know I could never have room for the beautiful elm.

    • Melissa Says:

      I have just lost (I think) a lovely flowering dogwood in the last round of snowstorms so if I replace it with something it will be either the Parrotia or a Stewartia (which also has exfoliating bark and is good for semi-shady areas). The elm, of course, does get big (but then so is my beech!

  2. John Says:

    I’m also a bark fancier. Besides the ones you mention other favorites are the Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica & its hybrids), Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum), and the Paperbark Cherry (Prunus serrula). Just touching trees like these provides a tactile delight that matches the visual sensation that flowers can yield.

    • Melissa Says:

      Excellent choices! I also love Betula nigra (river birch) and Winter King hawthorns for their bark, although I don’t often choose the hawthorns for residential gardens because they are so susceptible to rust. But their bark – and berries in the fall – are glorious.

  3. Veizman Says:

    Beautiful textures (especially the Parrotia)

    • Melissa Says:

      Thank you – texture plays a more important part in any garden than most homeowners realize. I’m leaning towards the Parrotia as a dogwood replacement because it’s more unusual and I like the more muted colors of its bark.

  4. Kyle Says:

    I have photo’s of an American Beech with exfoliating bark – no kidding – took over the weekend – never seen a tree like this – in Northern Vermont – I’m happy to send photo’s for this post – please give me an address.


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