People like me who work in the landscape industry relish the winter as a time of year when we can observe the bones of a garden and assess its structure and texture. Tree bark is one of the features that struts its stuff this time of year. In fact, sometimes we hardly notice bark until the winter when the leaves have fallen, and we are less distracted by blooms and everything else happening in our gardens. Regardless of where you live, there is a tree for you that will gladly show off for you and your landscape visitors and help make winter not just tolerable, but one of the most desirable seasons.
Zanthoxylum americanum (Prickly Ash) is a small tree in the citrus family that typically grows on rocky bluffs or in open woods. This tree earned the nickname ‘Toothache Tree’ because Native Americans chewed its bark or fruit to numb toothache pain. The bark of Zanthoxylum is fiercely armed with rounded thorns that become less sharp with age.
Prunus virginiana (Chokecherry) supports many butterflies and moths who favor its leaves as well as a large number of birds who enjoy the berries it produces. This shrub/small tree has bark filled with horizontal lenticels that are the hallmark feature of many cherry trees.
One of the primary ID characteristics of Diospyros virginiana (Persimmon) is its blocky, brown bark which is often described as alligator skin.
Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Corky’ (Corky Sweetgum) has the most unusual bark I have ever seen. With winged twigs and branches, the entire habit of the tree is pre-historic looking, making it a real eye-turner.
Lagerstroemia ‘Fantasy’ (Crape Myrtle) is known for its late summer blooms, but the striking, cinnamon-toned bark should not be overlooked.
Acer palmatum ‘Gold Digger’ and Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’ (Japanese Maples) present gold and salmon-colored branches for an amazing winter display.
Plantanus occidentalis (Sycamore) is a huge shade tree growing to 100 feet at maturity. It’s recognizable by its bark, which displays patches of white and gray. From a distance, the bark sometimes appears more white than gray, which makes the trees look like skeletons in the winter landscape.
Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese Stewartia) and Stewartia monadelpha (Orangebark Stewartia) provide multiple seasons of interest, but I particularly adore their bark patterns.
Pseudocydonia sinensis (Chinese Quince) produces a quince-like fruit that can be used for syups and jams. While edible fruit is an extraordinary feature, the bark is pretty remarkable and reminiscent of a camouflage pattern.
Like the other trees in this category, Cornus kousa (Kousa Dogwood) and Parrotia persica (Persian Ironwood) offer mesmerizing bark patterns and colors to passersby.
Carya ovata (Shagbark Hickory) is a huge and stately tree. Mature specimens grow 100 feet tall or more and display a wonderful, ragged bark that is eye-catching even from a distance.
Heptacodium miconioides (Seven Son Flower) provides interest in multiple seasons but the exfoliating, light tan bark really stands out in the winter.
Betula nigra (River Birch) is a medium sized, fast growing, tree that tolerates wet conditions (but doesn’t require them). The bark is very showy in every season.
Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) particularly catches your eye in the winter. Not only does the bark peel in a way that reminds me of curling ribbon, but it’s a gorgeous cinnamon color. And yet another ‘peeling bark’ specimen is Ulmus parviflora (Lacebark Elm).
You might not think of pine trees as having interesting bark, but Pinus bungeana (Lacebark Pine) will change your mind. Another conifer that has fascinating bark is Taxodium distichum ‘Shawnee Brave™’ (Baldcypress). This deciduous conifer is covered with a blanket of soft green in the spring and summer. In the fall, it sheds its coat and reveals a stellar undercarriage.
I hope my list of trees with interesting bark has given you some options to consider for your garden. Think about the size of tree you want, its growth rate and other desirable characteristics. Please share other options you love since I know my list is far from comprehensive. So many plants, so many wonderful bark textures. Here’s hoping that like me you will learn to treasure winter and the spectacular show our trees give us this time of year.