The Color of Bark

By Deborah Clark
NABBW’s Gardening Expert

My drive to work is pastoral and meditative. As I go over the hills and through the woods, I often turn off the radio the better to absorb the beauty outside. Now that the trees have shed their leaves, I behold the wood skeletons of trees and shrubs in a colorful array. Some of the colored bark has subtleties that strike me because my eye is trained, like the interior designer who appreciates the many varieties of white paint. But others are as vibrant as any flower would be to any viewer.

For the home gardener one of the most often used shrubs for winter interest is the dogwood (cornus) species — the red-twig (corunus alba elegantissims) or yellow-twig (cornus sericea) dogwood whose branches are bright red or bright yellow respectively. This shrub needs sun and a bit of space. To keep it colorful, its branches need to be cut back as the color appears on the new growth.

For those with space, sun and moisture, , you can enjoy some really dramatic winter color in the willows (salix) whose branches hang bright yellow. Cut back the branches on the redstem willow (salix alba chermesina) to get red orange twigs. For those with not as much space, the coral bark maple (acer palmatum `Sangu kaku\’) is a red barked tree, doesn\’t need pruning to keep its bright bark.

Often, the most common of garden shrubs and trees will surprise you when you focus on their bark. One of these species is spirea — Little Princess, especially – with their rust-colored filigree twigs. Hydrangeas are another, especially the oakleaf (h. quercifolia). Some of my favorite bark is the smooth gray of the beech tree (fagus) as well as that of the native fragrant snowbell (styrax obassia).

The rose family is all across the spectrum. Roses and raspberry branches show their shiny purple bark whereas kerria japonica\’s arcing green branches make quite a winter statement. And speaking of green branches, the broom (cytisus) also has them all winter long.

Birches are famous for their light colored bark – even white on the paper birch (betula papyrifera), but in the Mid-Atlantic region we\’re more likely to see river birches (betula nigra) with their yellow orange shaggy trunks. Birch bark also exfoliates, giving a shaggy appearance. The large shrub/ small tree that is mountain sweet pepperbush (clethra acuminata) has a reddish brown exfoliating bark. Shaggy and exfoliating barked plants come in all sizes, from the 12″ tall St. Johns Wort (hypericum) to the 15\’ crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia) to the mottled bark of the London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) and American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) which reach heights of 100 feet or more.

When you start to notice the bark of an undressed deciduous tree or shrub, you\’ll begin to appreciate it through the seasons and won\’t be as sorry to wave goodbye to its leaves in the fall. Like the paint on your walls that you notice more when the room is empty, bark provides a backdrop for brighter colors all year long.

Deborah Clark says she might never have taken up gardening if she hadn’t had neighbors who shared their love of gardening with her – but moved away. It all started in 1973, she says, when a departing neighbor invited her to take care of an already-planted community vegetable garden plot: all she had to do was weed and harvest. She was hooked.