In Appreciation of Bark - Indiana Yard and Garden - Purdue Consumer Horticulture

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 and flowers.

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 bark.

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 sunlight.

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 mottling.

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 of blocks.

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 grayer bark.

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.


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