Even bare trees have style.

This big perennial ‘sticks of fire’ produces a thicket of bright yellowish orange stems that changes shades through the seasons.

Everyone knows that flowers provide color in the garden, particularly through spring and summer. As blooms become less abundant in autumn, fall color of deciduous plants and trees becomes more prominent. After most plants are finished blooming, and most of the fall color is gone, the garden may seem relatively bleak for winter. Only evergreen foliage remains. This is when plants that exhibit colorful bark or bare twigs really get noticed.

Various types of birch trees exhibit striking white bark all year. While the trees are bare in winter, the bark becomes even more prominent, particularly against a backdrop of evergreen trees. English walnut trees are not as striking, but are more sculptural. Fig trees (fruiting types) are more gray than white, so are more reliant on a backdrop of rich evergreen foliage or a darkly painted wall for contrast; but they grow fast enough to become interesting sculptural specimens within a few years. 

Bright white or light gray bark are certainly no substitute for the colors of flowers or foliage, but are striking nonetheless. They exploit the starkness of winter, and the sculptural nature of bare trunks and limbs.

Even without the sculptural structure of birch, walnut or fig trees, the more colorful twiggy growth of coral bark Japanese maple and osier dogwood trees can be quite an advantage in a stark winter landscape. As the name implies, coral bark Japanese maple has pinkish orange twigs. Osier dogwood can be ruddy brown, brownish orange or pale yellow. Frost improves color.

Unlike other Japanese maples that get pruned only lightly to enhance their form, coral bark Japanese maple can get pruned rather harshly just prior to spring growth in order to promote an abundance of the twiggy growth that is so colorful in winter. Osier dogwoods can get pruned down almost to the ground at the end of winter to eliminate tired older stems and promote colorful new stems for the following winter. They lack the colorful bloom that flowering dogwoods provide; so it is no bother that such harsh pruning prevents them from blooming.

Like trees with white or gray stems, coral bark Japanese maples and osier dogwoods are more striking against a backdrop of rich green foliage. Because winters are so mild here, they should be located where they will be most exposed to chill.

Some Trees Are All Bark

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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.