Some Trees Are All Bark

California sycamore bark is very distinctive.

Flowers provide color and texture. So does foliage. What is less often considered is that the bark of many trees and large shrubbery can be aesthetically appealing as well. Bark is usually thought of merely as something to cover up the trunks and limbs of the plants that provide all the colorful and textural flowers and foliage.

Coral bark Japanese maple and red twig dogwood (and yellow cultivars, which are  selectively bred varieties) turn color as they defoliate for winter. However, the color is limited to the twigs and smaller stems. Red twig dogwood often gets cut back at the end of winter so that it will produce more twigs for the following winter. Mature stems and trunks are not as interesting.

Palms and yuccas do not actually have bark, but are still texturally interesting. Giant yucca trunks are weirdly sculptural. Mexican fan palm can be  ‘shaven’ to expose lean trunks with a finely textured exterior, but are more often adorned with the intricately patterned thatch of old petiole bases (leaf stalks). Windmill palm is uniquely shaggy with coarse fiber.

Arbutus ‘Marina’ is a madrone that was developed for home gardens. It is compact and symmetrical, with finely textured flaking bark that reveals strikingly smooth cinnamon-colored bark beneath. Larger manzanitas can be pruned up to expose similar bark on a smaller scale. Smooth Arizona cypress looks much like other cypresses, but with strangely  smooth bark on vigorous stems.

The bark of almost all eucalypti is interesting for one reason or another. Even the notorious blue gum, which  gives other eucalypti a bad reputation, peels away in very long strips to reveal smooth bark that fades from green to pink to tan to gray before peeling away to start the process over again. Some eucalypti have blotched bark. Red ironbark has rich brown bark that is uniformly furrowed.

Lemon gum (eucalyptus) and various birches have strikingly white bark. Lemon gum bark is smooth. Birch bark peels away like paper. Because the trees are so slender, they can be planted in groups so that there are more trunks to display the distinctive bark. These are only a few of the many trees that can impress with mere bark.

Self Grafted Redwoods


Redwoods are some of the most stable trees in the World. That is partly why they can survive for thousands of years. In my entire career, I have seen very few fall, and only inspected two.

Of those two, one fell because it had co-dominant leaders (double trunks) that fell away from each other, which is more of a structural deficiency than instability. The other, which I suspect was demonically possessed, was a small tree less than thirty feet tall, that literally jumped up out of the ground and onto an Astro van more than ten feet away. A rare ‘updraft’ was blamed.

Almost all of the redwoods here regenerated from the stumps and roots of much older trees that were clear cut harvested a century or so ago. Most of those that grew back with structurally deficient co-dominant leaders are very effectively sheltered from wind by their collective groves. Roots systems are very extensive, very resilient, and too intermeshed to be compromised.

The trunks in the picture above are part of a group of several trunks that grew from roots of the same tree that has been gone for a very long time. All are genetically identical and very close together. They happen to be a focal point of a big patio at a conference center. Although the structural integrity of the limbs within their canopy is a concern, the stability of the trunks is not.

Regardless, I am impressed by their attempt to improve stability. The limb that extends horizontally across the middle of this picture from the trunk to the left grafted to the trunk to the right! It is not uncommon for crossing limbs and trunks to rub through their bark to expose the cambium, but how do they stay still long enough to graft together?!

Some Plants Impress With Bark

P80805Lemon eucalyptus, ‘Marina’ madrone, cork oak and all sorts of melaleuca trees are known more for their interesting bark than for their foliage or flowers. It helps that their distinctive trunks and branch structures are ideal for displaying their unique bark. Color and texture of bark is remarkably variable, and tends to get noticed more in winter while blooms and foliage are lacking.

Bark of sycamores, birches, elms and crape myrtles that had been so handsome throughout the year is more visible now that it is not partially obscured or shaded by the deciduous foliage that is associated with it. Trunks and limbs of European white and Jacquemontii birches are strikingly white. ‘Natchez’ crape myrtle has distinctively blotched bark, (although the white flowers are pale.)

Because of their other assets, English walnuts, figs and saucer magnolias are not often grown for their bark. Nonetheless, their pale gray bark shows off their stocky bare branch structure nicely, especially in front of an evergreen backdrop of redwoods or pines. The smooth metallic gray bark of European beech is much more subdued, but is what makes big old trees so distinguished.

A few deciduous trees and shrubs get more colorful as winter weather gets cooler. Instead of white or pale gray, their bark turns brighter yellow, orange or red. Some plants, like sticks-of-fire, do not need much cool weather to develop good color. Others get more colorful in colder climates, and contrast spectacularly to a snowy landscape. Locally, they should be well exposed to chill.

As the name suggests, the coral bark Japanese maple (‘Sango Kaku’) develops pinkish orange bark. It can get ruddier in colder climates, but may get yellowish here. Unlike other Japanese maples that get pruned to display their delicate foliage and branch structure, the coral bark Japanese maple sometimes gets pruned more aggressively to promote more colorful twiggy growth.

Osier dogwood is a shrubby dogwood that lacks colorful bloom, but compensates with ruddy brown, brownish orange or pale yellow bark in winter. (Dogwood bark . . . There is a pun there somewhere.) Because it lacks colorful bloom, it can be pruned aggressively after winter. Older canes that do not color as well can be pruned to the ground as they get replaced by new canes.