UNITED STATES—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 get ‘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.
Highlight: Himalayan birch
Himalayan birch, Betula utilis ‘Jacquemontii’, must not be confused with the more traditional European white birch! If young trees get added to established groves of European white birch, they will never fit in. Their trunks stand vertically rather than lean casually. Their limbs are upright and angular instead of softly pendulous. Their bark is actually whiter.
Mature trees can get taller than thirty feet without getting much more than half as broad, and are relatively symmetrical for birches. The form of any single exposed tree is generally conical, although several trees together adapt to develop as picturesque groves with fewer interior limbs. The shade below is not too dark for lawn or moderately shade tolerant plants.
Maintenance is not exactly minimal. Vigorous young trees should be pruned and groomed annually, or at least every few years. Pruning should not be done in early spring when sap is likely to bleed from pruning wounds. Roots want to be watered somewhat regularly, even through the drought. When they fall in autumn, the two inch long leaves can be difficult to rake from fine gravel or bark.